‘Carrion’ in Conservation! – An Interview with a Raptor Ornithologist

I first met Katherine Smith just over a year ago at a VuPro conference in Hartbeespoort, South Africa. Since interning at VulPro she has achieved fantastic heights in her career, recently being involved in a Parahawking organisation in Nepal, dedicated to creating awareness about the plight of endangered vulture species across the world. Parahawking you say, what’s that you say? well do read on…

When did you first discover your love of all things feathered, specifically raptors?

I have always had a passion for animals ever since I can remember, but my first encounter with feathered creatures was when I was given a pet canary for my 14th birthday. This is when my real passion for birds began.  Since then, I expanded my collection to a backyard aviary, which allowed me to manage the care and breeding of the birds on a daily basis. I later started volunteering for The Imperial Bird of Prey Academy, which is where my interest of birds of prey, specifically vultures began. 

How did you make the leap from studying to working in a paid conservation role?

At the beginning, it wasn’t easy, as once I’d finished my BSc. (Hons) in Animal Care and Management it was difficult to find a job as everybody was competing for the same roles. I managed to land myself a voluntary internship at Colchester zoo for one year, and even though this wasn’t necessarily the career path I wanted to take I knew that it was a good stepping stone to help kick start my conservation career. During this time, I was able to also volunteer at a vulture rehabilitation centre (VulPro) in South Africa. Working here, provided me with some essential skills that would help me in my future aspects. After coming back, I obtained a paid post as a qualified zoo keeper, which helped me gauge ex situ conservation theory better.

Conducting Cape Griffon health checks before releasing them at VulPro headquarters. Photo credit: Kerri Wolter

Conducting Cape Griffon Vulture health checks before releasing them at VulPro headquarters. Photo credit: Kerri Wolter.

Tell us about your time in Nepal and how you got involved?

As a well-known falconer from the UK, Scott Mason is renowned for his Parahawking Project in Nepal. I heard about the Parahawking Assistant and after unearthing some more information, the role sounded like my dream job! I was absolutely ecstatic when I found out I had been accepted and couldn’t believe I’d been offered such a fantastic and unique opportunity.

The Parahawking Project is a unique experience that combines the art of falconry along with paragliding. Due to the vulture crisis in Asia, parahawking plays a role in educating and raising funds and awareness for a local vulture restaurant (or feeding site). The funds raised from the parahawking are directly injected into the running of this particular site, which not only supplements the wild vulture population, but also the local community. With over 97% population decline in vultures over the last decade due to poisonous cattle anti-inflammatories such as Diclofenac, lead-poisoning from gun shots, and poaching events due to the African muthi trade – these feeding zones provide an essential safe haven for all vultures to feed without the risk of being killed.

Species such as Egyptian vultures and Asian black kites reside at the project as ambassadors for raptor conservation. All the birds however, at the Parahawking Project are unable to be released back into the wild, as they were all rescued as orphans due to human habituation and imprinting. The project also runs a raptor rescue project, which has successfully rehabilitated and released around 80 individuals back into the wild.

What did your work in Nepal encompass on a day-to-day basis?

Once the birds were fit enough after having the opportunity to moult and rest during the monsoon season, I was responsible for the daily exercise of the black kites on the front lawn, and conducting and running the bird of prey experience days with guests whilst Scott would conduct the parahawking flights. During parahawking flights I would communicate with the paragliding pilots, ensuring the bird’s position, alerting the presence of wild raptors and finishing off the experience with a meet-and greet with the birds. So many people were grateful for our work, I mean how many people can say that they have shared the sky with a vulture? I also got to help rehabilitate an Egyptian vulture, and learnt a great deal about this method of conservation through this experience.

The view from the bird hide at the vulture-safe feeding zone during a wild vulture feed with the beautiful Himalayan mountains as a back-drop. Photo credit: Kat Smith.

The view from the bird hide at the vulture-safe feeding zone during a wild vulture feed with the beautiful Himalayan mountains as a back-drop. Photo credit: Kat Smith.

What would your advice be to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

My advice would be to never give up, however hard things might be when you can’t quite choose the career path you want. Never be afraid to give up your time and do some volunteering because it truly shows others your dedication and passion to something you are serious about. Conservation work is hard, usually not well paid and very competitive but the skills you learn in a practical environment can make you stand out from others and give you more opportunities in pursuing the career you want.

What kind of difficulties have you faced in your career so far?

Unfortunately, many conservation roles involve working within developing countries and this comes with its own problems. The difficulties I have faced with working within a developing country is you can never predict what is going to happen next and usually, political issues or corruption can get in the way of your dream career. Sometimes you learn to accept the ways of the country and some problems can occur that are not within your power to resolve. However, conservation work can also be very rewarding and if you can overcome or learn to deal with such issues, it can be a very humbling experience and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

What is your favourite raptor species and why?

Well it is probably obvious by now my favourite raptor species is a vulture, it’s really what brought me to South Africa and Nepal in the first place. I like vultures because they don’t always get a good reputation and I like to change people opinions and perceptions of them because they play such an important role within the ecosystem and they really aren’t as bad as everyone thinks. They are essentially the top of the food chain because eventually all animals will die and the one animal that consumes and prevents diseases spreading is of course the vultures, I like to call them nature’s natural waste disposers.

I have a huge soft spot for Bob the Egyptian vulture; of course he also loved cuddles too! Photo credit: Andrew Bell

I have a huge soft spot for Bob the Egyptian vulture; of course he also loved cuddles too! Photo credit: Andrew Bell

What important things can people do to create awareness of declining raptor species in their own country?

Education is the most important; if people are aware of the issues faced with declining raptors then they can spread the knowledge to others around them. If people begin to appreciate raptors and how they play a role within the ecosystem, then more people will begin to respect and want to help conserve them. Knowledge is power, and the more power, the more action can be taken to help them.

What’s next for you?

Working and living in Nepal for 6 months has really opened my eyes to experience different cultures and I was lucky enough to meet people from all walks of life. The story of how parahawking started when Scott was on his trip around the world has also given me the inspiration to travel the world, as you never know what can happen and the opportunities that might come your way.  The world is your oyster, and who knows, I may even get to do some conservation work along the way!

My first Parahawking flight with Bob the Egyptian vulture, truly incredible experience! Photo credit: Scott Mason

My first Parahawking flight with Bob the Egyptian vulture, truly incredible experience! Photo credit: Scott Mason

For further info, you can find Kat on the below platforms:

  • Facebook: kat.smith
  • Instagram: kat_smith92

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