Spirit in the sky
Written by Christina Ammon Photography by Christina Hauschildt, Scott Mason, and Veselin Vladimirov Ovcharov
FLYING IN THE SKY alongside raptors might sound like a fairy tale, or like some wild dream. But for Scott Mason it’s a typical day.
The British-born falconer lives in Pokhara, Nepal – a city loved by tourists for its proximity to the Himalayas and its rivers. His lakeside home is a round adobe hut topped by a thatched roof. Outside the front door are the aviaries he’s hammered together to house a growing cadre of birds.
In this exotic setting Mason spends his days pursuing a larger-than-life passion: training raptors to fly with paraglider pilots. He calls it ‘parahawking’ and, in a country that has long lured travellers with superlative adventures – like trekking to Mt. Everest – the sport is claiming a distinguished place.
In the plainest sense, paragliding is a form of non-motorised flight that relies on thermals: rising pockets of warm air that are created when the sun heats the earth. Made of high-tech fabric and sturdy lines, a paragliding wing is designed for optimal soaring and safety. In the best circumstances, skilled pilots can keep the wing aloft for several hours and climb to incredible heights; to date, the altitude record stands at 7,750m.
Mason’s goal to combine falconry with paragliding seems outlandish, but is underlined by some pretty sound logic: raptors have historically been used for hunting quarry and guarding vineyards at harvest time. So why not enlist their exceptional soaring abilities to help paraglider pilots find thermals?
Paragliding has been popular in Pokhara for over a decade. The region’s auspicious altitude and weather translate into seven straight months of reliable flying, and make it an international destination for paraglider pilots. For aerial scenery, it’s unmatched: the Himalayan peaks of Machapuchare and Annapurna South punctuate the horizon, while Phewa Lake shimmers below.
Importantly, the locals accept the sport. Out of Pokhara’s five paragliding companies (which offer tandem flights), four are Nepalese-owned. The rest of the community is tolerant as long as pilots don’t land in their flooded rice fields before harvest time. But even this can be a boon. Farmers’ children will often circle the mud-soaked pilot with gleeful cries of “buffalo landing!” Then, extending their hands, they collect a stiff fee – a whole new way to profit from rice.
Mason was a typical backpacker when he arrived in Pokhara’s touristy lakeside district eight years ago. He’d quit his job as a graphic designer in London, and was making the most of his trip – rafting, and exploring the mountains. The day before he planned to leave Pokhara, Mason spotted a colourful paraglider wing in the sky above Phewa Lake. Eager for one last adventure, he booked a tandem flight. While he was circling in the sky, Mason was struck by the sight of so many raptors – hawks, vultures, and eagles swooped inches from the glider. He’d already been obsessed with birds of prey since age five when he spied them through his grandfather’s binoculars. At 12, Mason acquired his first bird – a Barn Owl – and began a study of falconry that continued into adulthood. There was no question that he had mastered the art of interacting with birds from the ground. But, now, flying with them at eye-level, he recognised a new challenge.
The day after his tandem flight – in what now seems like a mystical twist of fate – Mason heard about two Black Kite chicks rescued from a destroyed nest. Changing his travel plans, he spent the rest of the season in Pokhara. But he also faced a sharp learning curve. While he learned to fly a paraglider, he began pioneering the techniques to teach the raptors to fly alongside.
His efforts paid off. Mason now maintains a successful commercial business, offering tandem parahawking flights to tourists. No experience is required – just sufficient courage to hook into a harness with Mason and run off the 2,000ft launch above town (Mason has a perfect safety record). Once in the sky, the raptor will thermal around the glider, and even swoop in to catch a ride on the passenger’s gloved arm. For many, it’s the ride of a lifetime.
By most measures, the lifestyle of this former graphic designer has become rather spectacular: he pursues the ‘Sport of Kings’ in one of the world’s most renowned landscapes. He ushers people into the sky on a daily basis, making their wildest dreams come true.
But despite the glamour of his work, parahawking is not all about magic carpet rides. All of Mason’s birds – the Egyptian vultures, a Hodgson’s hawk, and several Black Kites – were rescued from destroyed nests or confining cages. His ultimate goal is to rehabilitate the birds, and release them back into the wild – a project he calls ‘Himalayan Raptor Rescue’. To extend the reach of his efforts, Mason partners with another organisation called Vulture Rescue. The groups work together to alert the world to a grim fact: Asia’s vultures are in bad shape.
Since the early 1990s, there has been an estimated 98% decline in three species of vultures across India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The cause is Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly administered to cattle. When the vultures feed on the cattle carcasses they are exposed to the drug, and ultimately die of kidney failure.
The effects are far-reaching. Vultures fill a crucial ecological niche. Without them, cattle are left to rot and spread rabies to scavenging dogs. The dogs, in turn, pose a threat to humans. By making a quick meal of carcasses, vultures stop the spread of disease. Important as they are, the raptors’ less-than-savoury lifestyle has earned them a macabre reputation, making it hard to recruit sympathy for their plight. Through parahawking and Himalayan Raptor Rescue, Mason hopes to show people a gentler, more poetic side to vultures.
Eight years have now passed, and Mason approaches each day with the intensity of someone who has found their calling. He’s busier than ever – Lonely Planet has included parahawking in its 2010 Guide to Nepal, so Mason’s tandem flight schedule is fast filling up. Meanwhile, people keep bringing him sick and injured birds, and he struggles to find the space and time to rescue them all.
It’s a lifestyle that demands sacrifices. While the other paraglider pilots relax with post-flight beers by the lake, Scott Mason is frantically building new aviaries, and tending to the daily chores of the raptor centre: scrubbing cages, feeding, exercising, and weighing the birds. He’s learned to multi-task, and can do just about anything with a bird on his arm: eat, chat on his cell phone, and even drive his stick-shift jeep through Pokhara’s chaotic streets.
Finding financial support for his rehabilitation efforts has proved one of the biggest challenges, and Mason can get a little pessimistic at times. “People are more interested in saving fuzzy animals, like pandas and orangutans,” he laments.
He’s probably right. But each day when Mason hooks into his glider and launches into the sky with a thrilled passenger and a majestic raptor, one thing is certain: pandas and orangutans may have the edge on cuteness, but they’d be hard pressed to lead him up a thermal.
Kevin Neophron Percnopterus
Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
Age: Three years old
Eggs and sweet corn
Lead parahawking bird
Equipped with an ultra-lightweight camera around his neck, Kevin can offer a bird’s eye-view of parahawking. Interesting fact: Egyptian Vultures, like Kevin, are the only birds of prey that use a tool for obtaining food. The raptors pick up rocks with their mouths and drop them on ostrich eggs in order to break the shells and expose the yolk.