I watched my falconry instructor, Sara, perform the first few runs with Sapana, an old stubborn falcon. Sara tossed a piece of raw buffalo meat straight into the air. Sapana grabbed it with her talons, tossing it into her mouth still suspended. As the falcon flapped her way back up to her high perch, Sara snuck another piece of meat into her glove. Sapana rested, ten meters high on her perch, the sun glaring down, her mouth ajar. She was an old bird. The whistle shrieked, and Sapana lept forward, gliding down. She tapped Sara's glove with her talons, trying to snake the meat, but Sara's grip was tight. Sara turned in the line of flight, and Sapana landed on her arm to eat from her open palm. “Ok, your turn.”
The trick is sneaking the meat into the glove from your buckled fanny pack without the bird seeing it. Sara warned us, that as soon as she sees you going for that fanny pack, she'll come attempting a 'drive by,' meaning she will simply grab the food mid-flight without stopping, just like falcons do in the wild. I began fumbling around my fanny pack, but there was no meat in the main pocket. “It's in the front small one pocket,” Sara pointed. But it was too late, Sapana saw me, and she was coming in. I fumbled and grabbed the meat in my bare right hand, and stuck out my left gloved hand for Sapana to land. Her talons caught my glove, and I reached with my other hand to give her the meat piece. “No,” Sara screamed, “Don't do that.”
Sapana, lifted off from my hand, and swooped around to receive her prize. I tossed the buffalo chunk to the ground, and she landed next to my feet, thrusting the meat to the back of her throat. “Never expose your bare hand to their talons,” Sara said, “You have to be sneakier around her. She's the sneakiest bird here. Once she sees you go for that bag, there's no stopping her.”
Sapana is the oldest black kite, a member of the falcon group, they have at The Parahawking Project. She was also the only falcon the staff had seen that ever drank water sips. Between her falcon runs to my arm and back to the perch, she sipped from a green plastic bowl. Even though her old age made her do quirky things, she was still the fittest permanent bird on the project. When Tango, a former bird on the project, came flying by around 10 am anticipating a free meal of chicken and buffalo chunks, Sapana chased him off, fiercely territorial. Tango used to fly in the falconry lessons, but then was rehabilitated and released. When we practiced with Brad, the rookie of the group, Tango hovered right above our heads, very much aware that light-weight Brad stood no chance to the heavy-set Tango.
Sapana, Brad, and Googles are the three permanent black kites on the project. They are spending the rest of their days here, on the banks of the Phewa Lake in Pokhara, Nepal assisting in Falconry 101 lessons, gorging down buffalo, and not hunting for their food. They would never return to the wild, unlike more than 70 other black kites that came through the center's doors. The three kites were rescued, kept as pets while young, or imprinted on too early. But their presence at The Parahawking Project became even more important, as they, along with two Egyptian vultures, took on the roles of raising awareness about the plight of Asia's vultures.
In 2003, it was discovered that an antibiotic, similar to ibuprofen, administered to dying cattle, killed off 99.9% of Asia's vultures, resulting in more than 40 million deaths. The drug, diclofenac, which eased the aches and pains of elderly cows before they died, stayed in their system after death. When the vultures dined on the new carcasses, they too found themselves dead within 24 hours of renal failure.
Vultures, because they are scavengers, can digest just about anything. The acids in their stomachs are capable of breaking down anthrax, botulism, and cholera bacteria, but diclofenac killed them off quick. The skies, in less than a decade, became empty of these large wing span birds, thus spiraling changes into the ecosystem that would soon become ever more apparent.
But at the center Bob and Kevin, two handsome Egyptian vultures, became the face for SAVE (Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction), as well as the partners for tandem paragliding flights. Parahawking offers paragliders the chance to follow Bob and Kevin through thermal currents in the sky while tandem paragliding. The birds utilize thermals to glide without needing to spend energy. During the flight you even get to feed the Egyptian vulture mid-air, stretching out your gloved hand, and letting the bird land and grab its treat from you, before taking off, and flying by your side.
Scott Mason, founder of The Parahawking Project and experienced falconer and paraglider, conceived parahawking flight by using trained birds of prey during paragliding. From a personal experiment, he engineered one of the best rated tourism activities in Pokhara, Nepal while focusing on promoting a serious conservation message on the Asian vulture's, as well as donating a portion of each parahawking flight profit to local vulture conservation projects in Nepal.
One of the sponsored projects is the community-managed Vulture Restaurant in Ghachowk, just 13 km northwest of Pokhara, a restaurant that serves vultures instead of humans. Here, at the Vulture Restaurant, old cows come to die. In Nepal, a Hindu region, it is punishable by law to kill cows, a sacred symbol in Hinduism. In turn, when the cows become old and unproductive, they become a burden to the farmers. At the Vulture Restaurant, the old cows are fed an organic diet ensuring that no antibiotics enter their system until they die naturally. Upon their death, they are skinned so the hides can be returned to the former owners, and the carcasses are laid out to be feasted on. The vulture safe-zone now occupies more than 100 km radius area, and even though no scientific research counts have been conducted, locals and people like Scott Mason have seen more vultures in the area even when there are no cow carcasses around. Mason and others hope to encourage bird enthusiasts to come watch the vultures dine on organized dates when one of the cows passes by possibly deep freezing the carcasses and staggering the meal days.
Bob, the more sociable of the two Egyptian vultures, sits quietly on my gloved hand. The white feathers that stand spiked on head, as if zapped by static electricity, slowly press back down onto his skull. “He's alert,” Sara says. A murder of crows brush by us, not even two meter away. I stare into his eyes, obtaining no connection to the wild animal, as his head full of feathers stand back up. He ruffles himself, and preens under his wings. Sara laughs, “That's a good sign. He feels comfortable and trusts you enough to be able to do that.”
I talk to Danny, one of Mason's old time friends and fellow falconer from an early age. He tells me that make no mistake- there is no affection with these birds. It's not like having a parrot who may develop a deep bond with its handler. Here, these vultures and falcons, develop no affectionate bond other than a deep level of trust. “What happens if the bird attacks your face?”
“You abort. There is no coming back at that point,” Danny said, further explaining to us that if that happens then something went terribly wrong in training. There is no future in working with that particular falcon anymore.
Because in truth, no matter how handsome the kites and Egyptian vultures are (and yes the Egyptian vulture is a very handsome bird!), they are wild animals. And they are often wild animals with bad reputations. The 70 or so black kites that found their way in and out of the center's doors often come in because of rocks being thrown at them. The kites are opportunists, and will go for food any way they see fit, by rummaging through the garbage, or diving down for a mouse, fish, or left over piece of meat on the table.
The vultures, other than the Egyptian vulture, are seen as ugly, bald birds that dine of the dead. But their baldness is attributed so that the head can stay clean of blood and other bodily fluids while dining, and any left over germs could be melted away by the sun. Our ecosystem relies heavily on scavengers. Without them, many things can change.
In India and Nepal, where vulture populations plummeted, feral dog populations sky-rocketed bringing along with them rabies and other diseases that the vultures were able to properly digest, especially rabies. Rising cases of human anthrax due to handling infected carcasses or consuming poorly cooked meat from infected livestock is believed to be linked to the steep decline of vultures.
In certain areas of Tibet, funerals are referred to as sky burials. The bodies of the dead are laid out on the edge of cliffs to be devoured by vultures. Since most Tibetans are Buddhist, they believe that when a person dies, the body becomes an empty vessel. At a high altitude any sort of decomposition moves at a slow pace. With the rapid disappearance in vulture populations, this sacred death ritual has come to a halt, and now is being replaced by solar reflectors to fasten the speed of the body's decomposition.
Though hope does remain for these birds. A ban in Nepal, India, and Pakistan on diclofenac has taken place. Vulture Restaurants have the opportunity to offer sustainable ecotourism to bird enthusiasts and nature lovers. Adventurists flock for a chance to go parahawking. When we tried booking our own trip, we were told spaces often fill up a year in advance. Nearly every day during high season, a travel agency brings through a group of tourists to lunch at the bird center. They often don't know of their arrival, but are pleasantly surprised when they get the chance to have a meet and greet with the vultures and falcons, and even witness some falconry lessons going on.
No doubt in my mind, that those falconry lessons were one of the biggest highlights to my trip to Nepal. My next interactions with Sapana ran much more smoothly. She signaled she was ready for another round, lifting her wings up, just waiting for me to blow my whistle. As I breathed in, even before blowing, she saw the sign and lifted off from her perch right to the sound of my whistle. Her talons came first, grasping the thick leather and suede glove, landing strong. I opened my fist exposing a piece of buffalo to her while turning 180 degrees to bring her back to her line of flight as she chucked that meat into the back of her throat. She took off again, and I snuck another piece of meat into my glove while her back was still at me. She landed on the perch, opened her beak a bit, waiting for the next round and sip of water.
Check out The Parahawking Project to learn more about parahawking, adventure, and vulture conservation efforts at http://www.parahawking.com.