Taking Flight With Raptors
Parahawking, a sport that combines paragliding and falconry, is drawing adventurers and fostering a new breed of conservationist.
The nylon canopy ripples overhead as Bob, an Egyptian vulture, lands on paraglider Scott Mason’s outstretched, gloved arm. For a brief moment, the two sail together over the Nepalese countryside before Bob flies ahead, with Mason following close behind. They’re parahawking, a new activity in which trained captive birds lead paragliders through the sky. The pursuit, now being replicated in other places, teaches adventurers to appreciate—and in some cases protect—birds.
“Parahawking gives you a unique perspective into the behavior of birds of prey in flight, in their natural environment. To see them this close up while flying and to be able to share the sky with them is the ultimate bird’s-eye view,” says Mason, who created the sport.
A Londoner with three decades of falconry experience, Mason came to Nepal—where he says paragliding conditions are more consistently good than anywhere else—in 2001 as a trekker. It was there he first tried paragliding. He loved sharing the skies with soaring birds and it gave him an idea. Why not train birds to fly alongside the gliders? Soon after, he learned of two black kite chicks rescued from a demolished nest. Instead of leaving the country as he’d planned, he started paragliding more, working on ways to teach the birds to fly with him. Four years later he offered the first tandem commercial parahawking flights, in Pokhara, Nepal.
“It was a long shot really, an idea hatched over a few beers in one of the local bars in Pokhara. But what started out as an experiment turned into a labor of love which quickly became an obsession,” says Mason.
Since then demand has skyrocketed. In 2005 Mason’s organization took 16 tandem flights; by 2011 that number had grown to 400. “It’s the only way to truly experience the majesty of birds of prey in flight and to gain a better understanding and appreciation for vultures,” he says.
Those scavengers face severe threats from a veterinary drug called Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory used on aging cows and buffalo in the Indian subcontinent. Vultures that later feed on these animals experience renal failure, a problem responsible for an estimated 40 million wild vulture deaths in Asia during the past 15 years. Ten dollars from every $190 flight goes toward vulture conservation projects. The group recently launched “Share the Sky," a campaign to encourage air-sport adventurers to participate in conservation efforts.
Despite Mason’s attempts to bring attention to this problem and the birds, he says initial reactions were mixed. Some animal-rights groups claimed he was exploiting the raptors, but they came around once they understood the long-term benefits for vulture conservation. “These positive interactions that we can have between humans and raptors are very valuable and could have positive outcomes for raptors across the world,” says Patrick Redig, co-founder and emeritus director of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, where veterinarians rehabilitate sick and injured birds and look for emerging environmental obstacles for raptors.
Bob is just one of the many Egyptian vultures that fly with Mason (his company also uses black kites and Harris’s hawks). At the launch site, harnessed tourists take off with the wind. Once airborne, a staffer releases the bird, which flies to get a reward from the paraglider, landing gently on his or her hand before taking off again in pursuit of a thermal.
The animals come from the Himalayan Raptor Rescue, a facility for injured or orphaned birds of prey that Mason also runs. Humans rear those that come in very young, and the birds imprint on them, making it difficult to successfully release the animals back into the wild. Mason and his five-person team train the birds with meat morsels and adapted falconry techniques.
Mason also led parahawking operations in Spain, but the activity hasn’t quite taken off in the states. Kirk Sellinger of ParaHawk USA is trying to change that by setting up a San Diego-based parahawking operation in the next few months that will be modeled on Mason’s. To prepare, he parahawks with his Harris’s hawk, Shanti Maria. “Every time I have the bird out on my fist and someone sees it, their eyes go wild,” he says. “In this country people don’t have the chance that often to see these birds up close.”
Although there are no parahawking regulations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does regulate falconry, something only about 3,500 people practice in the U.S. “It would be a problem if everyone had a hawk on their wrist, but it’s so much work that it’s not going to happen,” says Kenn Kaufman, a bird expert and Audubon field editor. “If it gives people a way or a reason to have a positive interaction [with a raptor], then that’s good.”
Sellinger says that a parahawking outfit here could also offer a new perspective on today’s environmental issues. “We have the same plight as birds ourselves,” he says. “We have to deal with power lines and population expansion and all those things. We’re running out of hawking fields and paragliding areas just like the birds are running out of their hunting grounds.” (Although Sellinger would focus on the perils facing wild birds, he plans to use only raptors bred and raised in captivity for the practice.)
The more people learn about hawks, the more they appreciate them, he says. Until Sellinger’s operation is functional, a growing number of tourists will parahawk where trained guides take them flying with raptors, in the Spanish countryside, for instance, or with snowcapped Annapurna in the distance. Soaring over stunning vistas, a vulture at the tip of the canopy, may bring into focus the awe-inspiring experience of taking wing.