In Nepal in 2001, Scott Mason invented parahawking—an internationally acclaimed concept that combines falconry with paragliding to offer a unique adventure with an important conservation message.
In 2005 he made the award-winning film, Flight for Survival, to draw attention to the plight of Asia’s vultures—seriously endangered birds that are vital to the ecosystem but have an undeserved bad reputation.
We caught up with Scott to find out what Parahawking is all about, why vultures matter, and how the project is helping to bring these magnificent but misunderstood creatures back from the brink of extinction.
Hi Scott. What first got you interested in birds of prey and falconry?
I got into birdwatching as a young kid; I had an old pair of binoculars and a Birds of Britain guidebook and it seemed like the right thing to do with them. I was very fortunate to have a teacher at secondary school who was also an avid ornithologist and loved the countryside. He became my mentor throughout my time at school and encouraged my obsession with birds of prey.
Falconry allowed me to explore that special and unique relationship further and provided the perfect opportunity to spend more time discovering nature. I also had a few friends with the same interest and very understanding parents. We spent a lot of time together immersed in the art of falconry, reading falconry books, attending shows, making equipment etc.
How and why did you set up the parahawking project?
I happened to be travelling in Nepal when I rescued a couple of Black Kite chicks from a fallen nest. They were only a couple of days old and needed to be hand reared. I decided along with a friend who was running a paragliding company here, that we would train them to fly with the paragliders. I called it Parahawking after a few beers one evening in a local bar—the name just stuck. The idea initially was to train the birds to guide us to the best thermals as well as using Parahawking as an exercise in enrichment.
Could you talk me through the parahawking experience?
A Parahawking experience involves paragliding with a trained Egyptian vulture. This unique experience offers you the chance to interact with a bird of prey in its natural environment. It provides an opportunity to study the inflight behaviour of raptors like never before, to be a part of their world in the sky. During a flight our birds will lead us into the best thermals then return to your gloved hand for a small reward of meat, before gracefully flying away to search for the next thermal. You’ll also learn about the plight of Asia’s vultures and how the Parahawking Project is contributing to the vulture conservation effort.
Why did you start using Egyptian vultures?
I never really saw a long-term future in Parahawking with Black Kites. The Black Kites no longer fly with the paragliders as they have learnt that there are easier ways to obtain food but they are still handled and exercised during our Bird of Prey Experience sessions.
We originally had no intention of getting Egyptian Vultures, but then we rescued two Egyptian Vultures two years apart (Kevin and Bob). They both came to us very young so had to be hand reared and therefore could not be released back to the wild. After training them for Parahawking, I soon realised how amazing they were and that they could become ambassadors for vultures in Nepal.
What conservation threats are vultures under?
Vultures are the primary consumers of carrion in both Asia and Africa. They are Nature’s cleaners, playing a vital role in the ecosystem by consuming the carcasses of both domestic and wild animals. Without them, millions of tonnes of animal carcasses would be left to rot, causing health problems in humans.
In the last 20 years, vulture numbers across South Asia have plummeted, with studies showing that up to 99.9% of some species have been lost. This equates to about 40 million birds, leaving only an estimated 11,000 vultures in the wild.
In 2003, the cause of the catastrophic decline was discovered to be a veterinary drug called Diclofenac, which is administered to livestock such as cows and buffaloes to alleviate pain and suffering. Cows are sacred in Hindu culture; they are not butchered for meat and are treated with drugs when they become old or ill.
Diclofenac is highly toxic to vultures. Vultures that feed from dead animals with the drug in their systems quickly die from liver and kidney failure. This has brought Asia’s vultures dangerously close to extinction.
Thankfully, for more than a decade there has been a global conservation effort to save vultures from extinction. The sale and distribution of diclofenac was banned as a veterinary drug in 2006 and replaced by the vulture safe alternative, Meloxicam, as the first step towards the vultures’ recovery.
How is the parahawking project helping in the conservation of vultures?
One method of providing safety for Nepal’s vultures comes in the form of Vulture Safe Feeding Sites (VSFS). Local communities are encouraged to sell or donate their elderly or sick livestock to the VSFS, the animal is well looked after and when it dies the carcass is offered to the vultures to consume and dispose of—as nature intended. In theory, the vultures have no need to venture into potentially unsafe zones where the NSAID may still be in circulation and use.
The Parahawking Project funds and supports a VSFS in Ghachok within the famous Annapurna Conservation Area. The majority of Nepal’s nine vulture species regularly use the VSFS and the surrounding biodiverse landscape also plays host to a large number of active nest sites for vultures.
Through Parahawking flights, bird of prey experiences, fundraising and donations we can provide everything the VSFS needs including, food for the livestock, tools and training workshops for the staff and the well deserved staff wages.
In 2010 the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE) awarded The Parahawking Project with the Enrichment Behaviour Award and a Conservation Grant; the grant money was used to build an observation hide and boundary wall at the VSFS.
What can people around the world do to help vultures and raptors?
Firstly it’s important to dispel that negative image of vultures and educate oneself about the importance of them in our ecosystem. Most reputable raptor centres run conservation programmes where people can make donations to specific projects. People can donate to an organisation called SAVE (Save Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) or join the RSPB, The Peregrine Fund or The Audubon Society. Or better still, come to Nepal and take part in a Parahawking Experience!
What’s your favourite vulture fact?
Many people think that vultures detect food by smelling rotting carcasses. This is not strictly true of all vultures; in fact old world vultures, such as those found in Europe, Africa and Asia, do not have a sense of smell at all and rely purely on their incredible eyesight. Vultures found on the American continents are known as new world vultures. Most notably the Turkey vulture has an acute sense of smell which it uses to detect the gasses given off by rotting animal carcasses.
For more information about parahawking, please visit www.parahawking.com
More bird features on Love Nature:
Africa’s vultures are circling towards extinction, a new study warns
The world’s oldest tracked bird is ready to have another chick, her 37th
Back to the wild: Inside the RSPCA’s wildlife rehabilitation programme