|Nepal has been my second home for more than 30 years. During that time I have written several books set in Kathmandu and authored dozens of articles about conservation and development projects – from the first micro-hydel project in Namche (1983) to the post-war plight of Chitwan’s tigers.During the past month, I have been following closely what seems to be a campaign against Scott Mason, who for nine years has been operating a parahawking business in Pokhara. The writers in Republica were outraged that Mason is keeping endangered Himalayan vultures— even alleging animal abuse. A public outcry has followed these accusations. Quite suddenly, laws that prohibit parahawking – a sport that Mason originated – are allegedly coming to light.
At the risk of taking up a bit more space than is usual, let me share with you a story. In 1984, in Lhasa, Tibet, I encountered two nomads with a cardboard box. Inside the box was a baby snow leopard, which they had captured after shooting its mother (who, during a particularly hard winter, had attacked their livestock). It was the intention of the nomads to sell the snow leopard to the highest bidder: Either a pharmacist, who could sell its bones as a Chinese aphrodisiac, or to a carpet merchant, who could sell the animal’s skin.
I bought the leopard from the nomads myself – an act of compassion that instantly made me a criminal, in possession of an endangered species. Unfortunately, I was in no position to rehabilitate this animal, much less release its progeny (if breeding were possible) into the wild. If I had been, I would have done so without hesitation.
By the greatest good luck, I was introduced to another traveler visiting Lhasa at that time: The renowned zoologist George Schaller, immortalized in Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard.” Schaller assured me of one thing: An injured predator – like a snow leopard or a Himalayan raptor – can almost never be returned to the wild. Unable to hunt, they will slowly starve and die. But even Dr Schaller had few alternatives. He acted as an intermediary, and made it possible for me to hand the animal over to the Chinese authorities without penalty. The snow leopard died some years later, in captivity in the Beijing zoo.
Scott Mason has spent nine years rescuing and caring for crippled, poisoned or displaced Himalayan raptors (for an indirect commentary on habitat destruction, please see your own article of Feb 18, ”35 New Hotels in Pokhara”). Locals often bring Mason injured birds, which he nurses back to health. To the best of his knowledge, there are no effective alternatives in Nepal for raptor rehabilitation.
Over the past nine years, Mason has worked with about 25 birds. Whenever possible, they are returned to the wild. Some of the rescued chicks have been “imprinted” in the care of human hosts. They cannot hunt on their own, are trained to fly with paragliding pilots and receive rewards of meat. Like the falcons of Mongolia they remain noble creatures, navigating the thermals above some of Nepal’s most beautiful mountains.
But not all Mason’s birds are suitable for training—and some arrive with broken wings or torn tendons, too damaged to ever fly again. These birds are cared for, fed, and exercised by Mason daily.
It is true that Mason is a paragliding pilot, and that he makes a living from his parahawking business. This, in turn, helps support his conservation efforts. But anyone who has seen Mason caring for his raptors –often for 12 hours a day – appreciates his incredible love for, and commitment to, these birds. Like the Jane Goddall or the late Dian Fossey, his vocation transcends business.
I support all laws which prohibit the keeping or selling, for exploitive purposes, of any endangered species. But Mason is not exploiting Himalayan vultures; he is saving them from extinction. Mason has continually supported international efforts to bring international attention and aid to the plight of these birds – including a project, with Bird Conservation Nepal, to launch a “Vulture Restaurant” in Pokhara which will help fund further raptor rescue efforts.
Without these efforts, and the facilities that Mason has developed, rescued vultures would likely share the fate of my Tibetan snow leopard.
The most sensible course from here would be to accord Mason the well-deserved status of an exemplary conservator and teacher, fully empowering him to work with local authorities and students to publicize the plight of the raptors. He deserves not censure, but the full support of Nepal’s people and government.
I love Nepal, and admire many things about the Nepali people. But I find the tendency to target successful foreigners, and distort their efforts at building a strong infrastructure, enormously troubling. There are many grievous problems that we—Nepalis and visitors together—must address in Nepal. Attacking an internationally respected pilot and conservationist is perhaps not the best use of our energies.