Nepal's endangered vultures take flight for new sport

At a lakeside resort in the mountains of western Nepal, the paragliding season is in full swing, and local champion Kevin is training to get back to full fitness.

His unerring ability to find the thermals that allow paragliders to defy gravity, soaring through the air with vertigo-inducing speed, have made Kevin a minor celebrity in the world of this exhilarating sport.

Kevin, a four-year-old bird who was rescued as a chick after falling out of the nest, is the world's first paragliding vulture.

His owner is Scott Mason, a 38-year-old Londoner with a lifelong passion for bird conservation who travelled to Nepal nine years ago and - almost by accident - invented the new extreme sport of parahawking.

The birds fly with the paraglider, guiding the pilot to the thermals that they have a natural instinct for finding. They are then rewarded with meat, and are trained to land on a passenger's gloved hand when called.

Mason, a former professional falconer, was at the start of a round-the-world trip when he took his first tandem flight on a paraglider in the Nepalese resort town of Pokhara where he now lives.

Impressed by the wealth of birdlife in the skies above Pokhara, he decided to stay on for a while, and was soon running a small rescue centre for birds of prey.

Nepal has long been an international centre for paragliding, thanks to its stunning mountain scenery and clear, dry winters, and it wasn't long before Mason came up with the idea of training birds to help locate the thermals.

He hooked up with a fellow Briton who ran a local paragliding centre, and their early attempts to fly with birds proved successful.

"No one had ever done it before, so we were writing the rule book. I'd trained birds for hunting, but I was very much out of my comfort zone. I was learning as much as the birds were," Mason told AFP.

In 2003 the pair made a short film on parahawking, winning international awards and generating a buzz in the adventure sports community.

"It was becoming more and more obvious that we'd hit on something that was very unique, that could generate a lot of international attention," said Mason.

"At the time there was a real need to put a focus on a problem that was becoming apparent with vultures. I had always wanted to do something powerful within conservation and this was the perfect chance to do it."

South Asia's vultures have been driven to the brink of extinction, and conservationists had just discovered the main cause - the birds were being poisoned by Diclofenac, a drug found in the carrion they eat.

It was widely used as a painkiller for livestock, and as cows are considered sacred and cannot be killed for meat there were large numbers of carcasses to be disposed of by vultures.

The catastrophic decline in vulture numbers across Nepal, India and Pakistan has dramatic ecological and social consequences, not least because the birds once played a vital role in preventing disease by cleaning up carrion.

"These declines are right across South Asia and are completely unprecedented," Chris Bowden, vulture programme manager for Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, told AFP.

"We went from tens of millions to just a few thousand in 15 years or so.

"The oriental white-backed vulture used to be considered one of the most populous species in the world. To find it on the critically endangered list is quite extraordinary."

Diclofenac has since been banned and a safe alternative, Meloxicam, introduced. But experts believe a human version of the banned drug is being used on animals, and overall bird numbers are still thought to be declining.

Mason's initial attempts at parahawking were with two black kites brought in to the centre he set up, Himalayan Raptor Rescue.

It was not until Kevin, an Egyptian vulture, was brought to the rescue centre in 2006, that he decided to start offering tandem flights commercially, realising they could be used to highlight the plight of the often misunderstood birds.

"Kevin was a vulture, which meant we could focus our conservation efforts and use him as an ambassador," he said.

"Because he was brought in as a chick, he couldn't go back into the wild anyway, he didn't have the necessary survival skills. It also meant he didn't have the same fear of humans the other birds had.

"So we trained him to fly with the paragliders and suddenly parahawking as a concept became viable."

Since then, the business has taken off. In the first year, Mason piloted just seven commercial flights but by 2009, the number had swelled to 370.

Kevin has now been joined by fellow Egyptian vulture Bob, as well as black kites Goggles, Brad and Sapana, the first bird of prey to be taught to fly with paragliders.

Some of the cost of each flight goes to vulture conservation projects in Nepal and some goes to fund Himalayan Raptor Rescue, which aims to rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned birds and return them to the wild.

Those that cannot be sent back into the wild become permanent residents, are exercised daily and - if they show an aptitude - trained to fly with the paragliders.

"Flying with birds is a bit like swimming with dolphins - it's something people never imagine they could actually do," Mason told AFP.

"My last flight of the season last year was with an 80-year-old man who said it was the best experience of his life."

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
Louis van Gaal at the Hawthorns prior to Manchester United's game against West Brom
football

Follow the latest updates from the Monday night Premier League fixture

News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past