Flying with vultures in Pokhara

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This morning I went flying with Kevin. Kevin is a white Egyptian vulture with a swept-back Afro hairstyle and a mustard yellow face. He’s also my paragliding partner.

Pokhara  is the paragliding capital of Asia. Every year, between October and April, the sky around Sarangkot Mountain is dotted with a shifting kaleidoscope of circling parachutes above the emerald rice terraces and the majestic white backdrop of the Mt. Annapurna.

Apart from the views, the main attraction of Pokhara for paragliders is its thermals. These allow experienced pilots to soar for hours above the green paddy fields before gliding down to land near Phewa lake. The thermals also attract other keen flyers, the vultures that Kevin is related to. A Himalayan griffon vulture, the largest bird in the Himalayas, can soar for hours without moving its wings, on the lookout for the carrion on which it feeds.

There has been a catastrophic decline in vulture populations, up to 99% of some species, across the whole of south Asia in the last 20 years. This is blamed on the use of a common veterinary drug called diclofenac that is used to treat domestic livestock and that remains in the body tissue of dead animals.

Dead cattle are the main source of food for vultures in the region and the drug has been proven to cause kidney damage and renal failure in the birds. Nepal is home to three species of vultures that are globally threatened, including the white-rumped, slender-billed and red-headed vultures.

Kevin was rescued as an abandoned chick and passed on to Scott Mason, a paraglider who runs Himalayan Raptor Rescue. He invented the sport of par hawking.

Every morning Kevin joins the paragliders on Sarangkot Mountain. Two thousand metres above the earth paraglider and vulture share the same thermals. The paraglider puts on a falconry glove, places a piece of buffalo meat between his thumb and fist and holds out his hand. Kevin glides in for breakfast. In this part of the western Himalaya there is such a thing as a free lunch.

-Expert from Guardian weekly

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