Story and Photography by Dave Stamboulis
(Check back tomorrow for Dave’s photo essay on the Kazakh Eagle Hunters)
I am perched on top of a cliff on a small crag looking out over the arid Altai mountain chain of western Mongolia. In this remote corner of the globe, population density registers less than one human being per square kilometer, roads into the region are nothing but dusty tire tracks, and temperatures during the eternal Siberian winters regularly plummet into the minus 40 and 50’s. One rarely spots an airplane overhead, nor for that matter many Russian vans or Suzuki 4WD jeeps lumbering through, but what is striking out here is the complete absence of sound. All I can hear from my perch, other than the wind, is the beating of wings, coming from a large golden eagle who sits beside me, scanning the horizon for prey.
Eagles inhabit the vast grasslands and mountains of the Central Asian Steppe, from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and on into Mongolia. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, the forbearers of the modern nomads, had thousands of hunting birds, and their falconry expeditions were detailed by Marco Polo. It is also thought that berkutchi, as the art of eagle hunting is called, has been in existence on the Steppe for some 6000 years.
In Bayan Ulgii Province, which straddles the Kazakh, Russian, and Chinese borders, there are over 200 golden eagle hunters, all carrying on the ancient tradition of their forefathers. Most of the actual hunting takes place during the winter, when the birds are lean and hungry, but a large festival takes place in the province at the end of autumn, where the ethnic Kazakh hunters gather to show off their skills and talents, as well as compete in traditional Kazakh games such as kokbar, in which a tug of war with a goat or fox pelt is played while on horseback; kyz kuu, which is a romantic flirting game involving horse racing between women and men; or tenge alu, in which horse riders attempt to pick up tokens laying on the ground without getting off of their mounts.
The bond between hunter and eagle is a strong one, as the eagle is a fiercely independent creature, and in order to create trust, it must be trained from an early age. The eagle hunter I am staying with, 50 year old Bikbolat, tells me that females make the best hunters, as they are more aggressive due to protecting offspring, as well as tending to be a third heavier than their male counterparts. Training young chicks can be preferable, as they are tamer, and won’t harm children or sheep, but birds that are a bit older are actually better hunters and have the killer instinct needed to bring down wolves and foxes.
Bikbolat tells me that the eagle chicks can be obtained by finding nests on the mountain tops during hatching season, but that to get older birds they have to resort to setting out traps baited with fresh rabbit meat, or tethering an accompanying eagle next to an animal carcass which will provoke a flying eagle into a jealous fit of rage if it occurs in a space they consider their territory.
Once trained, the eagle goes out with the hunter on horseback, riding on his left arm. The bond can be so close between veteran hunters and their birds that the slightest change in talon pressure on a hunter’s arm alerts him that his bird has picked up the scent of a prey. Some Kazakh hunters have antiquated Russian rifles which they can use to pick off hares, but most of the hunting is left to the eagles, as their vision is eightfold that of a human, and they can spot a fox or wolf several kilometers in the distance. While their main victims are marmots and corsac foxes, prized for their pelts which make excellent insulation, the physically powerful eagles also take down owls, wolves and even rare snow leopards. While not out on a hunt, the Kazakhs tend to keep blindfold hoods known as tomaga on their raptors so that they will remain calm.
Despite the hardships of life in rural Mongolia, the Kazakh hunters and their families remain tightly knit and enterprising. Bikbolat, who has also trained his first son Asentai to go hunting with him, lives in a traditional ger (yurt) for 4-5 months a year, and then in a small wood home on the edge of the grasslands during the colder months. Ever smiling, he proudly joked with me that he had 70 sheep, 50 goats, 40 cows, 20 horses, but only one eagle and one wife! His wife and daughters spend the day cooking, sewing, and preparing an endless array of dairy and bread products to supplement the mutton that feeds the family year round (not to mention their beloved eagle, which needs around half a kilo of raw meat a day to stay nourished!).
One could say that with enough livestock, hunting is superfluous, and mainly done for sport. However, the warm coats, cloaks, and hats that the hunters wrap themselves in during the severe winters are made entirely from the furs they get. Additionally, the practice of eagle hunting still serves as a rite of passage for Kazakh young men as well as a time honored tradition and highly refined art form that has been passed down for generations eternal.
Overgrazing of Mongolia’s rangelands has impacted the wildlife available for hunting in recent years, not to mention that with the arrival of tourism and its sponsors, pressure for wildlife preservation has also made inroads into the traditional way of living of the Kazakh eagle hunters. Yet eagle hunting requires a blend of force and tenderness as well as a profound respect for the natural world. The birds are treated with reverence and honor by the Kazakh hunters, and are always released back into the wild after ten years or so (eagles normally live to around fifty). And Bayan Ulgii Province is thousands of kilometers removed from the bureaucrats in Ulaan Baatar.
A Kazakh proverb sums up the hunters’ lives out in one of the world’s most remote places, saying “fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people,” and from my mountain perch, my view is almost as good as the birds.
Mongolia can be reached via Air China, which has daily flights to Ulaan Baatar via Beijing (http://www.airchina.com/th/en/index.shtml).
To reach Bayan Ulgii, the new Eznis Airways has domestic flights every other day and is the most comfortable way of reaching the remote west of the country (http://www.eznisairways.com/).
To set up visits with eagle hunters or tour anywhere in Mongolia, local outfitters Kazakh Tour are recommended (www.kazakhtour.com)
The Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii usually occurs during the first several days of October each year.