Paragliding enthusiasts have long loved Pokhara, Nepal for its bowl-shaped valley, consistent wind and stunning snow-capped Himalayan views. But one paraglider takes the idea of flying with the birds to new heights—literally. If you fly with Scott Mason, vultures wing directly alongside, leading the way to the best air currents—and, if you're game, eating treats straight from your hands. The idea to combine paragliding and hawking (dubbed "parahawking") was sparked when Mason was watching paragliders look to the flight paths of native vultures, hawks and kites to extend their aerial experiences. Birds instinctively seek updrafts, called thermals, to stay aloft and conserve energy while flying; these same thermals push paragliders higher, making the joyride last much, much longer. To Mason, the strategy is simple: "Our vultures lead the way. We follow."
The stars of what's now called the Parahawking Project are eight-year-old Kevin and six-year-old Bob—both rescued Egyptian vultures. Unable to be released back into the wild, the two were trained to interact with the paragliders in the air, with treats as their incentive. Mason and his team offer up to four parahawking flights each day with Kevin or Bob, plus on-the-ground beginner falconry courses. "In our first year, we were scouring the local bars begging people to come fly with us, trying to convince them that parahawking was something they could do. Now we do hundreds of flights each year, and the demand is still growing," says Mason. Kids as young as 10 can fly; the oldest passenger to date has been 85. "He said it was the best thing he'd ever done in his life," Mason shares.
The ride isn't just for thrills, either—though it has them in spades. For each flight, 1000 rupees (approximately $10) is donated to vulture conservation projects in Nepal. And by introducing hundreds of people each year to his birds, Mason hopes to raise awareness about the plight of raptors globally as well, as the population of some species has declined as much as 99% over the past 15 years. Loss of habitat, electrocution, and persecution have all contributed to their low numbers—as well as a veterinary drug called Diclofenac (often present in cow carcasses eaten by raptors) which is highly poisonous to them. The Parahawking Project currently supports a "vulture restaurant," where clean carrion is available for the birds of prey to eat, as well as programs that rescue and rehabilitate raptors.
Tandem parahawking flights cost approximately $210; bookings are available Mid-October through early April. More information on the Parahawking Project and booking information online.
Images courtesy of Scott Mason