Working with Adam Hill at Sunrise Paragliding, Scott developed the art of parahawking: combining the ancient sport of falconry and the modern techniques of paragliding. Initially, the goal was to train their two birds to mark out thermals for them, and accompany them on cross-country flights. The original Black Kites are still around, but have retired from active duty, mainly due to the problem of aerial aggression from wild kites.
In 2006, Scott experimented with training an Egyptian Vulture, a larger bird. At this point, having made a successful feature film—and having attracted a lot of media attention—Scott realized he had good marketing strategy in place. Enough marketing to start up commercial tandem flights, with an eye on fund-raising for his raptor rescue operation. He branched off with his own paragliding outfit in Pokhara. It takes an entire season to train a bird to develop flying skills and build confidence with paraglider interaction. Scott's trained vultures are ambassadors for the beleaguered vulture species of the Himalayas, promoting awareness of their plight.
There was only one paragliding company in Pokhara back in 2001. Now there are more than a dozen. Pokhara Valley is shaped like a bowl: it has morphed into a paragliding paradise due to the valley's microclimate, which allows for excellent gliding conditions with steady updrafts. And Pokhara's lakeside provides an ideal tourist base for Scott's unusual eco-adventure. "We've flown with passengers from all walks of life, including an 85-year-old," says Scott. "We get all kinds of people—even some scared of heights, scared of flying, and scared of birds". That's a whole raft of phobias to deal with on a half-hour flight. Most clients, however, have a strong connection with birds—and with nature—which is why they want to try parahawking. In fact, Scott explains, some would never ride tandem on a paraglider if it were not for the bird connection.
The parahawking operation in Pokhara is not without controversy. The flights have drawn flak from local tour operators and Nepalese media, no doubt jealous of Scott's success. They have argued that his operation amounts to animal exploitation and that wild birds should not be used for human interaction. But as Scott points out, the birds he trained were abandoned and would not have survived in the wild, plus they draw a lot of attention to vulture conservation. In this endeavor, Scott has the backing of Bird Conservation Nepal. They work together to set up "vulture restaurants": safe zones that offer drug-free carcasses.
Currently, Scott has two trained Egyptian Vultures that accompany tandem flights. I meet the second star of the show—Kevin—in the course of basic falconry lessons at the parahawking base. Kevin has an amiable personality: he pecks at my jacket out of curiosity.
Then I meet Kevin again up aloft over Pokhara on another tandem flight, a thermal encounter of a totally different kind. Kevin the master glider is in his element, but I am definitely not. After an exhilarating flight, there's a soft landing down by the lakeside, on a grassy stretch near grazing water buffaloes. The flight is short—around 25 minutes—but 25 magical minutes, etched deep into the braincells. Some describe this experience as spiritual. If not spiritual, then a powerful encounter with the forces of nature. This is about as close as you can get to winging it with a bird of prey, soaring in its aerial domain.
If You Go
Parahawking in Nepal is a one-of-a-kind venture because it offers tandem paraglider flights with trained birds on a commercial basis—although on a small scale (maximum four passengers a day). The paragliding season in Pokhara usually runs October to April, which is also prime bird-watching season. Scott's parahawking operation has a slightly shorter season—from November to March—because of vultures molting feathers, aggressive nesting raptors in the spring, and summer monsoon rains. The outfit can arrange a single flight, multiple flights, or a three-day package including falconry practice.
For more information, consult www.parahawking.com/. You can friend Kevin at facebook.com/kevinthevulture (Bob has a similar Facebook address). For more about Asian vultures in crisis, check out www.vulturedeclines.org/. If you're a bird-watcher, bring binoculars and arm yourself with a field guide for the birds of Nepal. There are over 850 bird species present: dozens can be spotted around Pokhara, and many more in Nepal's national parks.
Michael Buckley is author of several books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com) and filmmaker for several short documentaries about Tibet (www.WildYakFilms.com). He covers large swathes of the Himalayan realm in his Shangri-La guidebook.
All photos by Michael Buckley.
YouTube video by Michael Buckley, using a GoPro Hero2 camera set at wide-angle and mounted on an extension rod.
Voices & Choices When a Human Flies by Lisa TE Sonne
High-speed Kills on the Open Plains: Falconry in Wyoming by Rachel Dickinson
Dial-a-Bird by David Lee Drotar
Hell, Heaven, and Home in Kathmandu by Jeff Greenwald
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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