Man, Raptor and Parahawking

Article by. R.J. Villa
Photos by. Jeff Folk & Scott Mason

Parahawking advances the interaction between man and bird by providing a unique opportunity to interact with birds of prey in their own environment, combining the flight of paragliding with the ancient art of falconry. By strengthening this bond between birds and humans, paragliding pilots are able to train birds of prey to fly alongside them like wingmen as the birds guide them to the thermals that exist high in the sky. Through utilizing the rising currents of warm air, the birds of prey are able to gain height and fly long distances without burning energy from flapping their wings. The paragliding pilots with passengers in tandem follow the path of the birds, harnessing their natural ability to conserve energy over great distances.

“I’m told repeatedly on a daily basis by our passengers that it’s the best experience of their life,” reveals Scott Mason, pioneer and founder of Parahawking. “So when an 80-year-old tells you this on his birthday, you know you created something quite special.”

Parahawking was developed and pioneered in 2001 in Pokhara, Nepal. It has been a labor of love that started out as an experiment. The birth of this extreme sport was founded on the friendship of three friends: Scott Mason, Adam Hill and Graham Sunders-Griffiths. Two months into a world tour while taking a break from running his graphic design company, Mason had his first paragliding tandem flight when he met Hill, the owner of Frontiers Paragliding. Having trained birds of prey since he was 11-years-old, Mason found the experience of flying with wild birds of prey in their natural environment to be simply awe-inspiring. It was at this moment when Parahawking was born.

Through Parahawking, you get the opportunity to study raptors and observe them in their own environment like never before. There are now Parahawking tandem flights where you can experience the raptor’s incredibly agile flight with a true bird’s-eye view. Today, Parahawking has slowly grown into a successful commercial venture overseas.

“What Scott Mason and the Parahawking crew have been able to accomplish over there in such a short amount of time with training their birds, rescues, education and conservation efforts is absolutely amazing,” said local parahawker Kirk Sellinger.

“It is my wish that whomever is able to make Parahawking accessible to the public here in the United States carries on in the same vain. As flight pilots, we look to birds to open our understanding of these invisible domains and follow them to the thermals.”

Inspired by Scott Mason’s first film Parahawking, Sellinger has taken to the Southern California skies, sharing the thermals with local hawks and ravens. His local flights have taken him over Blossom Valley, El Monte Valley and Torrey Pines. Having trained under Master Pilot David Metzgar, who had worked with Mason on his last film, Sellinger recognizes his instruction and paragliding advice as paramount to his Parahawking today. Like his idol Mason, Sellinger now looks to the birds as perfect wingmen and teachers.

Originally from Washington, Sellinger currently resides in San Diego and is taking the lengthy steps of learning the craft of falconry, having entered a two year apprenticeship under a grand master falconer. He is heavily involved in conservation and volunteers at Sky Hunters Raptor Rehabilitation and Education Center. He has learned a great deal in the past year from Director Nancy Conney and Tom Stephan, his falconry sponsor.

“I have been loving the old school, hands-on approach to learning the ancient art of falconry,” comments Sellinger. “Over the past 40 years, Stephan has trained many species of raptors and has been involved in a myriad of conservation and educational projects. Trips with him and other master falconers into the field have been crucial in the learning process.”

Sellinger’s primary teacher and inspiration has been his lady hawk companion Shanti Maria. He named the Harris Hawk after his mother who recently passed and combined it with the old Sanskrit word meaning peace. Sellinger has been working with Shanti for the past seven months as they work her into a breeding program, exercising her through hunting, free flight and Parahawking.

“I have been lucky enough to climb and fly to a lot of places, film wildlife around the world, even swim with whales,” added Sellinger. “But the experience of caring for and working with Shanti is at the top of the list. Chasing thermals and bunnies, building our relationship together; I really lucked out to be able to work with such an amazing bird.”

As far as commercial Parahawking in the United States, it seems like a steep climb before it happens any time soon. One can only imagine the mountain of legal paperwork and permits that need to be approved. American Parahawkers like Sellinger are doing what they can to make it a reality.

“As far as the future of ParaHawk USA, we will have to wait and see if we sink or sky out,” Sellinger stated optimistically. “With the Parahawkers in Spain using North American Harris Hawks, it is high time for us Americans to cooperatively fly with our species of raptors as well. These birds are totems and national symbols for a reason. We have a lot to learn from them and Parahawking is one way to do just that. It is just too bad you have to go to other places to do it commercially.”

Sellinger and the ParaHawking USA efforts have been getting more involved with the Golden Eagle efforts in the San Diego area. San Diego is home to these majestic raptors with roughly 50 breeding pairs according to experts. A new landfill placed in North County within an active nest site has been the focus for Sellinger and Stephan, his falconry sponsor.

“You can see first hand the beauty of this active nest site from close by (but not so close as to disturb them) and the canyon below where the landfill is going to be, and I feel the sense of loss,” wrote Stephan to Sellinger. “I mean the landfill will be full in a decade or so. The eagles… gone forever.”

The effort of Scott Mason, pioneering the sport of Parahawking, has more than created a new extreme sport.  It has drawn much needed attention towards conservation and the need for saving ecosystems and wildlife across the globe. Whether it is the scavengers or the birds of prey that these pilots share the thermals with, their survival ultimately relies on the actions and support of us humans. People like Mason and Sellinger are showing us that this cause is calling us across the globe, whether it is in the mountains of Nepal, over the peaks of Europe or even our local skies above San Diego.

For more information on Scott Mason, Parahawking and his conservation efforts, please visit www.parahawking.com

ParaHawkUSA
ParaHawk USA is currently figuring out the best and most appropriate way to make the joy of flying with raptors and other birds available to the American public.  Their aims do not stop there; with the unique ability to capture captivating images of birds in flight, ParaHawk USA is used as a tool in promoting raptor conservation and education.
www.parahawkusa.com

Sky Hunters Raptor Rehabilitation and Education Center
P.O. Box 1275
Lakeside, CA 92040
619-445-6565
www.skyhunters.org

Sky Hunters is a nonprofit group dedicated to informing the public about raptors, birds of prey, and promoting raptor conservation. Sky Hunters offers presentations at various schools, campgrounds, interpretive centers, community programs, scout troops, churches and summer camps. Their presentations educate the public about the behaviors of hawks, owls, falcons and eagles. They also cover what to do if you find a sick or injured raptor and the laws we have to protect birds of prey.

Q & A with Scott Mason: Founder and Pioneer of Parahawking
By: R. J. Villa

Over the last decade, Mason has built up most of his paragliding experience in the Nepal Himalayas. Averaging over 400 tandem flights a year, he is now bringing his Parahawking experience to Europe, expanding operations into Spain. In addition to Parahawking, Mason also runs the Himalayan Raptor Rescue project at his home in Nepal. Using the publicity received from Parahawking, he continues to call attention to his vulture conservation efforts in Nepal.

With Parahawking being pioneered in 2001, how long have you been doing this 
commercially?
We have only been operating commercial Parahawking activities, such as Parahawking tandem flights, for 5 seasons. i.e. Since 2006.

Your website has called attention to the national press coverage through 
organizations such as Time Magazine, National Geographic, and CBS News to name a
few. Can you recall any celebrities that have taken the flight alongside your 
raptors or continue to contribute to your efforts and cause?
Sadly, we have flown no celebrities to date. We don’t get too many celebs coming to Pokhara, I’m afraid. Maybe we’ll see some in Spain when we get set up. We would welcome anyone famous or not to take a Parahawking flight and, instead, help contribute to the vulture conservation effort. The problem is that vultures are not very glamorous.

What kinds of trained birds do you mostly use to take you to the thermals?
We run a small bird of prey rescue facility in Nepal. We only train birds for Parahawking that cannot be released back into the wild. Normally, birds that are brought to us as chicks have to be hand reared, which makes it very difficult to reintroduce them back into the wild. We get a variety of birds brought to us; so far, the only birds we have been unable to release are two Egyptian Vultures and three Black Kites. They all get trained for Parahawking. The Egyptian Vultures take to it better than the others, so we use these ones for the tandem flights. In Spain, it’s different. We’ll be using Harris Hawks for the Parahawking project there.

You guys are starting a new venture in Spain this year. Could you give us some more details about that Parahawking adventure?
We started the preparations last summer. This summer, we’ll be launching the project. We’ll be based in Alicante, Spain, offering Parahawking tandem flights to tourists, adventure seekers and bird enthusiasts. We have teamed up with a paragliding company called Doyouwanna Paragliding, which has helped with the logistics and flying sites. The team will be made up of myself, my girlfriend Anita Hjertas, and my two pilots from the Nepal project: Jessica Love and Ivan Ripoll. We’ll be using North American Harris Hawks, which are captive bred in the United Kingdom. In the future, we would like to obtain some Egyptian Vultures and use Parahawking in Spain to contribute to vulture conservation projects there, just like we do in Nepal. Our reputation in Nepal is first class; in Spain, we will be building on this reputation by offering the same quality and standards we have in Nepal.

With your Parahawking Nepal season now coming to a close; do you care to expand more on what your Parahawking Nepal adventure entails?
Parahawking in Nepal is not just about the flight. It’s an effort to raise the profile of vultures, to raise awareness of the declines across Asia, to educate about the conservation efforts to protect them from possible extinction, and to raise money for the vulture conservation project in Nepal as a whole. As much as it’s the ultimate flying experience, I see Parahawking as a public relations campaign for vultures in general. We donate 10 euros from every Parahawking tandem flight towards Nepal’s vulture conservation projects. We donate that money directly to the projects, including the vital Vulture Safe Zone project in Pokhara. But we don’t just hand over the money; we take an active role in the project, its development, and its success.

You and your birds have an origin and involvement with the Himalayan Raptor Rescue project; care to elaborate on their efforts a little bit?
We started the Himalayan Raptor Rescue project in 2001 when I was first there. I had rescued a number of Black Kites, many of which I could return to the wild. A few could not be returned and it was these birds that were the first we trained to fly with us. Over the years, we have rescued approximately 45 birds from a variety of situations. We treat, rehabilitate, and release as many as we can. Our success rate is pretty good since there are no specialists or vet care in Nepal for birds of prey. I draw from my 30 years of experience in keeping and training birds of prey. In addition, Parahawking and Himalayan Raptor Rescue work hand in hand to promote vital conservation projects in Nepal. By donating 10 euros from every Parahawking tandem flight, we are able to raise several thousand euros per year, which we donate directly towards Nepal’s conservation projects. Himalayan Raptor Rescue provides support for the projects through regular presentations, vulture restaurant visits and fundraising events. We are a very small facility and do not want to encourage people to take birds from the wild and bring them to us. This is a problem here in Nepal as there is a belief that we pay people large sums of money in exchange for the birds. This is not true. This has meant that there has been a drop off of the number of birds we have rescued in the last 2 years. Sadly, compassion for birds of prey is quite a way down on the list of priorities for most Nepalese. Birds of prey are considered a pest and threat to their livestock and livelihood.

What can people do to be involved in Parahawking?
They can simply book a Parahawking tandem flight in Nepal or Spain via the Parahawking website. It’s the ultimate flying experience and is listed in the Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel guide book, and it’s also listed as one of Pokhara’s highlights.

What are your opportunities for employment or programs for people to learn 
about Parahawking and falconry?
We offer one placement per year. This is normally to somebody with prior experience and training in handling birds of prey. We also offer falconry lessons to anyone wishing to learn more about the basic fundamentals of training and handling birds of prey. These lessons are becoming more and more popular. These are normally based on a two hour session and are perfect for people that wish to take a Parahawking flight in the afternoon. We don’t offer traditional falconry courses.

How much does a Parahawking trip typically cost?
Parahawking flights in Nepal are currently 125 euros per person. In Spain, it will be approximately 110 euros; this is still to be confirmed.

How much time would someone need to set aside in order to truly experience a Parahawking adventure?
In Nepal, we run two trips per day for a maximum of four people; two in the morning and two in the afternoon. We try not to make promises regarding flight times. There are many factors that can determine how long the flights will last; however, average flight times can last from 20 to 40 minutes. The overall time from ground to ground is around two hours, so it’s important to set aside a morning or afternoon to enjoy the overall Parahawking experience. Parahawking is more than just taking a flight with the bird; we want you to learn about the birds and the conservation aspect of what we do. We hope that our passengers not only have an amazing flying experience, but that they leave with a greater understanding of birds of prey in general. The time they spend with us on the ground talking about the birds is as important to us as the flight itself.

Would you like to mention anything about your sponsors or any individuals in 
particular who make Parahawking possible?
I have been very lucky over the years to have the support of some major players in the paragliding and falconry industry. Gin Gliders came on board very early on by supplying me with all the paragliding equipment I needed. Gin recognized that Parahawking was an effective means of promoting vulture conservation. He believes in the project and what we do, and I can’t thank him enough for his support. Ben Long is the world’s leading falconry equipment manufacturer. As a falconer and conservationist, Ben has been supporting us for many years by supplying us with all the falconry equipment we need. Other sponsors are GoPro Cameras, who supply us with the cameras that we use to get those amazing pictures for our passengers, UK Airsports, a paragliding supplier in the UK, and Tinyloc Telemetry, makers of the one of the best radio tracking devices on the market.

But aside from my sponsors, it is the Parahawking team that is the most important, including my girlfriend Anita Hjertas. They are loyal and dedicated to the project and should all take responsibility for its success over the last few years.

For more information on Parahawking or Scott Mason and his conservation efforts, please visit www.parahawking.com

Himalayan Raptor Rescue
Himalayan Raptor Rescue was set up in 2001 as a nonprofit, privately run organization based in Pokhara, Nepal. Their primary objective is to care for injured, orphaned, and sick birds of prey with a view to rehabilitating and releasing them back into the wild where possible. All of the birds kept at the Himalayan Raptor Rescue Center in Nepal are injured, orphaned or sick when they arrive. Some birds are able to successfully rehabilitate and be released back into the wild. However, other birds permanently imprint on humans and are unable to fend for themselves. Birds that are unable to be released become full-time residents. If their health permits, they are exercised and flown daily, whether it is being trained for Parahawking or simply being allowed to soar on our local training hill site.

For more information on Himalayan Raptor Rescue, please visit www.himalayanraptorrescue.org

Upcoming Parahawking Film
Flight for Survival is an upcoming film that documents Scott Mason’s struggle to raise awareness of the vulture’s plight by undertaking his greatest challenge to date – a 10,000 foot climb in the Himalayan Mountains to attempt the highest, longest, and most challenging parahawking flight ever. With Asian Vultures dying out at an alarming rate, 99.9% of the population has disappeared in the last decade. This makes them even more endangered and at risk than the polar bear. Mason has made it his life’s mission to bring the vulture’s imminent extinction to the eyes of the world. In Flight for Survival, we follow Mason’s journey through a series of trials and tribulations as he battles the elements in the Himalayan Mountains to bring his conservation message to the masses.

For more information on the film Flight for Survival, please visit www.flightforsurvival.com

Steve

Author: Steve

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