Archive for January, 2010

Trust

January 30, 2010

Today it was the jeep. Scott turned the key. Nothing.

“Someone call Shiva!” Scott stepped out and punted the door shut.

He wasn’t invoking Shiva-Shiva, the four-armed Hindu deity—though such omnipotence would’ve been a real boon on such a morning. He was summoning Shiva-next-door—a taxi driver who found a niche in Nepal’s cutthroat cabbie-scene: if you show up on time and don’t overcharge, the passengers keep calling.

Scott’s assistant, Emily, plied herself from the cramped jeep and steadied the vulture, Kevin Neophron Percnopterus, on her forearm. The three of us stared out at the morning lake and waited. A water buffalo nibbled rice staubs near the roadside. A bus top-heavy with passengers on the roof roared by, leaving a swirl of black soot and distorted Hindi music.

Scott narrowed his eyes and sighed. The jeep breaking down wasn’t my fault, but I somehow felt moved to apologize for everything going wrong.

“No. Things aren’t going wrong,” he said, trying to convince himself.  “It’s just the way it is here.”

When Scott moved to Nepal 8 years ago, his vision to take travelers on tandem paragliding flights with trained raptors seemed ambitous enough: after rescuing the injured birds, he had to spend weeks readying them for release. The ones that were unfit for the wild, he trained to fly with the gliders. Realizing one of humanity’s oldest dreams–flying with birds–was anything but straightforward.  But these days, “parahawking” feels simple compared to navigating the country’s frayed infrastructure. Each day presents a litany of problems that had become too routine to be thought of as “obstacles:” upturned fruit carts in the road, transportation strikes, thugs siphoning petrol from his jeep under the moonlight. Two weeks ago, a bus toppled off the road to launch. Rather than thermaling with the raptors, Scott and his clients spent two grim hours pulling bodies from the wreckage.

But instead of throwing down his falconer’s glove in defeat, he’s remained steadfast. In favor of the predictable British protocols he’d grown accustomed to in England, he’s learning to imitate one of the Nepalese people’s best traits: tenacity–a belief that with a little trust and a lot of creativity, things tend to work out.

Shiva rallied his little red taxi into the driveway. Scott lobbed his paragliding wing on the roof, and Emily ducked into the back with Kevin Neophron on her gloved forearm. Shiva backed the car out and slalomed it past samosa sellers and shoeshiners. Chickens, dogs, and old women fled to the shoulder. The Egyptian vulture ruffled his plumage and let loose a nervous dropping on to Emily’s jeans. Avian splatter paint.

Nine near head-on collisions and lots of horn honking and we were at the office.

The tandem client sat inside, fingers drumming the armchair. In the last moments, passengers often wrested second thoughts: a fear of heights, or of birds, or a reluctance to hook in a harness with a high-strung falconer and run off the edge of a 2,000-ft mountain so far from home.

Scott introduced himself with a genial bedside manner, and then rushed us out the door. It was best to catch the thermals at their peak for a long, high flight.

We squeezed back into the cab and plowed up the curvy road to launch. Shiva wedged the car alongside overloaded hay trucks, and teased cliff edges. As Scott fielded questions from his nervous passenger, Emily balanced Kevin –the-vulture carefully on her arm as though holding a scalding cup of chai.

On launch, Scott began an intense and intricate choreography: clicking buckles, positioning the inflight camera, putting on a falconer’s glove, passing a whistle over his neck. He coached his passenger and waiting for the perfect breeze for launching.

In a leap-of-faith, Scott and his client ran off the hill and into the air. Emily untethered the bird from its jesses. The moment of release is incredible: a flash of white lunging into the air. Though even wild birds prefer lounging on a branch, seeing them take flight taps something that feels primal and right. A free spirit set free.

Scott placed an egg inside Kevin’s aviary–the vulture equivalent of an after-work beer. Kevin bellied up to the egg, picked up a pebble, and hammered the shell until it cracked and oozed.

When it comes to snacking, the vultures are savant. Once Kevin stealthily plunged the delicate arête of his beak into Scott’s mouth and plucked out a bite of tuna salad sandwich and spit the tomato on the ground. This sort of savvy impressed one Pharaoh so much that he declared killing the vulture a crime punishable by death.

The vulture could use that sort of reverence now.  All across Asia, the scavengers’ populations have diminished by 98-percent in just ten years. The cause: drug-tainted livestock carcasses. Efforts to save the birds have been slow to get underway.

“If they looked like puppies, people would be throwing support at me,” Scott complains.

But even if vultures aren’t particularly cute, humans should care. Without the street-sweeping birds, animal carcasses are left rot. Stray dogs contract rabies from the bad meat, turn feral, and pose a very real threat to human health.

There is cultural fall-out as well. The Tibetans, unable to dig graves in the frozen plateaus of their homeland, rely on the birds dispose of the bodies–a practice known as “sky burial.” The practice is also common in parts of India.

But how to get the average person to care? Scott spends a lot of time online pleading the cause and racking up friends on Kevin’s Facebook page. At his raptor rehabilitation center in Pokhara, he educates visiting groups of travelers. He hopes that through parahawking with Kevin, people will see and gentler, more poetic side to vultures.

His biggest hope lies in opening a “vulture restaurant”—a cute term for a tract of land where the birds can dine on uncontaminated carcasses. He’s collaborating with Birds Conservation Nepal and a nearby Nepali community to realize the project.  The vision is that by giving the vultures a refuge, tourists might visit, and bring economic benefit to the community–an arrangement of mutual benefit.

Does the raptor feel affection for you?” I asked Emily.  It was late afternoon and she was exercising Sapana, a Black Kite Scott rescued from a downed nest (because she was just a chick at the time, Sapana never learned to survive in the wild). The Kite left her glove and skirted low over a table of paraglider pilots drinking post-flight beers and landed on a high perch above their head.

Spending so much time at Scott’s raptor rescue center, I’d gotten very curious about bird psychology, staring at their faces for long periods, trying to divine an emotion from their stern countenance. Emily had worked with raptors for a long time, flying them at runways and zoos.

“I don’t think the raptor likes me, or doesn’t like me,” she answered. “Our relationship is based on mutual benefit. That’s why I like it—it’s not clouded with complicated emotions. Both parties have to benefit.”

“If she ever flew away, I’d know we weren’t doing a very good job.”

Scott has lived and worked in Nepal long enough to shake the overly simple notion that it’s merely a country of poor but happy mountain people. In many ways, Nepal is like anywhere else. As a whole, the people have been curious, kind, and hospitable. The local organization, Bird Conservation Nepal, has whole-heartedly supported his mission. But others have harmed it. Scott spent a year teaching the neighbor kid falconry, only to catch him stealing Euros from his sock drawer. He’s left his work jeep with the mechanic, and had it returned with parts removed.

He’s well aware that being a Brit living in a poor country like Nepal inevitably puts him in an awkward position. He’s been critiqued by people who don’t relate to his priorities. But, for him, this last chance to save the vultures ultimately transcends muddy issues of cultural relativism.  The ecological truth is that the species is nearly extinct and  in keeping to his mission, sometimes the falconer has had to be as skillful and deft as his raptors.

But if Scott sometimes feels disheartened, he’s clearly effective. After listings in the Lonely Planet and scads of articles, parahawking flights are more popular than ever. Plans for the vulture restaurant are fast underway. He’s rehabilitated and released many birds, including a raptor named Dave. Late afternoons, even now, the Black Kite is known to return and fly circles low above the rescue center.

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