Parahawking is falconry in flight. Just with a vulture. There's only one place in the world you can do it: Pokhara, Nepal and doing it is as awesome as it sounds.
Full Disclaimer: This adventure, which costs $US200, was made possible by Klook, a one-stop shop for unique travel activities throughout Asia. Klook caters all types of activities from cultural to adventure.
Parahawking, which can best be described as a hybrid of tandem paragliding and falconry, was the brainchild of Scott Mason, an award winning bird trainer. The idea spawned as an enrichment exercise for non releasable rehabilitated raptors and to find new ways to promote vulture conservation issues in Nepal. The concept was there, a training program was developed, and a completely new adventure activity was born.
When parahawking, you soar with trained Egyptian Vultures, which are an exceptionally unique species of bird. Not only are the Egyptian Vultures incredibly intelligent (they're one of two bird species in the world that use tools to source food (they will actually pick up and drop rocks to break into eggs) but they are incredibly energy efficient. The vultures rely on warm pockets of air, called thermals, to achieve lift -- allowing them to soar with minimal effort. The higher they soar, the wider their perspective becomes, allowing them to more easily source food. If there are no thermals, the Egyptian Vulture will find a tree to perch on and conserve energy until it's ready to try again.
Because of their natural dedication to energy efficiency, Egyptian Vultures are an excellent bird to paraglide with, because gliders also rely on thermals to achieve lift. So when paragliding, anytime you want to go up you just follow the birds!
Coming in hot!
In order to keep the vultures interested in the flight, they have been trained to eat from the sky. The paragliding system is tandem. The pilot, also a trained bird handler, flies; the passenger feeds. Goes like this:
The passenger pulls a piece of buffalo meat from a pouch on their waist. Holds it in their leather gauntlet; covers the meat with their other hand. Egyptian Vultures have fantastic eyesight; if you don't cover the meat, they will come snatch it when you're not ready. The pilot whistles to call in the bird. The passenger uncovers the meat and holds their arm out as a perch. The vulture swoops down, lands on the passenger's arm, gets his snack, then takes off. Eat, repeat.
It sounds complicated, but in practice, it actually flows quite smoothly.
And there's nothing quite like having a majestic Egyptian Vulture swoop down and land on your arm while you're soaring amongst the greatest mountains on earth.
Look at that spread!
Why Go? Aside from having the experience of a lifetime, parahawking supports important vulture conservation efforts. There's actually an alarming epidemic occurring in Asia right now. Since the 1990s, a drug called Diclofenac -- which is an anti-inflammatory -- was given to alleviate the pain and suffering of dying livestock. Once the livestock died, vultures would consume the animal, but were unable to process the drug, resulting in their deaths within twenty-four hours.
The cause of the vultures' decimation was discovered in 2003; by 2006, India, Nepal, and Pakistan had banned the drug for veterinary use. However, the damage had already been done. Due to the vultures' mature breeding ages, they haven't been able to reproduce quickly enough to combat their losses.
The result: In the last twenty years, up to 99.9 per cent of some species of vultures have been lost in Asia. That equates to about 40 million birds, leaving only an estimated 11,000 vultures in the wild.
Vultures play a vital role in our eco system. As nature's cleaners, they scavenge dead and diseased corpses. Without them, millions of tonnes of animal carcasses would be left to rot, causing health problems in humans.
As a result of the vultures' decline, numerous consequences have resulted in India, where the predominantly Hindu culture allows the use of cows for milk and beasts of burden, but not human consumption. Carcasses, once eaten by vultures, now rot in villages, seriously contaminating sources of drinking water. Additionally, other scavenger species populations such as rats and wild dogs have risen exponentially. These new carnivores carry diseases from rotting corpses, such as rabies and anthrax, and are directly or indirectly responsible for thousands of human deaths. Since the epidemic began, 30,000 people die from rabies in India every year -- more than half the world's total. The decline of vultures has cost the Indian government 34 billion dollars in rabies treatments and sterilisation of the rabid animals.
Many governments in Asia have taken steps to ban diclofenac for veterinary use, but variations of the drug manufactured for human consumption are still available and are being illegally used as a substitute on livestock. Vulture populations have continued to decline at a rate of 20 per cent and 40 per cent each year since 2007. [Indian Vulture Crisis]
Proceeds from parahawking go directly to the rehabilitation of birds affected by the epidemic, habitat destruction, and other human-generated problems, as well other raptor research and conservation efforts in Nepal.
Bob and Scott preparing for flight.
What You'll Need to Bring: Dress for the season. If it's summertime, a light windbreaker will do. If it's colder out, you'll probably want an insulated jacket too, the air can get pretty chilly at altitude. A pair of sunglasses will protect your eyes from not only the sun, but any bugs or debris that could be flying through the air.
I carried my dSLR camera, but my hands stayed pretty busy during the flight (it was my responsibility to feed our vulture, Bob) and admittedly, my photos weren't nearly as awesome as the ones my glider pilot shot with her GoPro. Feel free to bring your own action camera (you can helmet-mount it for a cool first-person perspective), but twenty five bucks will get you a DVD with hundreds of high-res photos, as well as an HD video from your flight.
Bob and Scott in-transit to the paragliding take-off zone.
How Do You Get There? From Kathmandu, take a bus to Pokhara (Tourist: $US10, Micro: $US5, Local: $US3.50 -- prices correspond accordingly to the level of comfort that you prefer). From Pokhara, the parahawkers will pick you up from your hotel and take you to the launch zone. After the flight and quick debriefing on the Vulture Epidemic (given while your photos are burning to disk), they will drop you back off at your hotel.
The Annapurna Base Camp trek only takes a week; it begins just one-hour by car from Pokhara. In the winter, you'll find pristine snow and far fewer crowds compared to the high season of October and November.
What Should You Do While You're There? Pokhara, Nepal is known as one of the adventure capitals of the world. The Annapurna Himalayan range is just an hour's drive away; the area offers superb trekking and climbing opportunities.
Klook also curates a handful of other adventure experiences in the area, including "the world's most extreme zip line," mountain biking, and regular paragliding, but why would you want to do that when you could go parahawking instead?
Bob coming around for another pass. He would make stops between the two paragliding teams, so there was always food available; motivation for him to fly.
What We'd Do Differently: I would have brought a warmer jacket for my January flight. With just a lightweight windbreaker, it got a little chilly. Also, I would have tried to not puke in my mouth upon landing. It got a little queasy.
About the Author: Chris Brinlee Jr is an adventure photographer and filmmaker who is currently travelling around the world. Follow his journey on Instagram: @chrisbrinleejr. Pictures: Rebecca Bredehoft, Chris Brinlee Jr