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Golden Eagle - The Wings of the Kazakh
The Altai Mountains, one of the most secluded areas in the world, covers a vast area of over 16,000 kilometers, forming an impregnable barrier against globalization with its permanently snow-covered peaks that rise above 4,500m. This land of undiscovered beauty and wilderness is home to the Kazakhs, who have been preserving the ancient tradition of falconry to these days. Although falconry is still popular in many countries, including the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, hunting with golden eagles is exclusively a Kazakh practice.
Golden Eagles, one of the largest and fiercest birds of prey, are natural-born hunters, known for their amazing eyesight and strong feet with knife-like claws. They can catch not only a rabbit or a fox, but even bigger mammals like a wolf and a snow leopard. Diving from the sky at rocket speed, the golden eagle breaks the neck of its prey and kills them swiftly, without leaving a mark. Yet, many have been training falcons and hawks, but not this mighty creature for the game.
To make things clear, let’s just say a process of capturing a golden eagle in the first place is no small feat. Golden eagles usually nest on the highest and steepest cliffs near the hunting grounds, imposing a wide view of the surroundings, rather than on treetops or on the ground. Additionally, they are more sensitive to human disturbance near their nest than most other birds. Even a short visit by humans might cause an eagle pair to relocate to a different place, not to mention the possibility of getting attacked by them while advancing to the nest which can be fatal. Another issue adding to the already tough challenge is that golden eagles in the wild rarely gather in numbers at a feeding site. They instead prey solo on mid-sized animals inhabiting their natural habitat. It is possible to set up a trap near a fresh kill and hope for them to come, but blindly baiting them is likely to fail.
Having said all that, the nomads of the Altai region have been overcoming this challenge for some 6000 years. Becoming an eagle hunter is hereditary. Boys learn from their fathers and brothers how to train and take care of the eagle. Golden Eagles are extremely territorial and can often be seen guarding and demonstrating their dominance of the area at all times, especially during their mating season which spans from February to May. Kazakhs, savvy trackers by nature, usually have no trouble spotting exactly where the nest is located. As eagles are intensely independent at heart, it is essential to train them from an early age to establish a bond. Thus, Kazakhs usually prefer training young chicks as they are calmer and won’t attack kids or livestock, although adult birds have the predator instinct necessary to bag prey. It is also known that females are better hunters as they are more aggressive and much heavier than their male counterparts. In Kazakh custom, you are not a true eagle hunter until you catch the bird in the wild and raise it yourself. As soon as the boy comes of age, he treks to the eagle’s nest alongside his father. The young man, using only a rope, climbs up to the rocky cliff while his father stands on guard, and steals the chick. After they have successfully captured a chick, the training starts, a task which can continue for several years.
During training, the owner must sacrifice his sleep for countless nights, as he needs to feed and foster the growing bird. The eagle wears a hood over its eyes all the time, which keeps it calm and ensures its reliability. The hunter frequently sings and chants to the bird to imprint the sound of his voice. Over time, the eagle memorizes and eventually obeys the voice of his master. As the eagle almost nears adulthood, the bird is shown the hides and furs of the animals it must hunt, to get used to the smell and the characteristics. Once training is complete, the eagle goes out on its first hunt with the hunter on horseback, resting on his right arm. When the owner spots the prey, he takes off the hood of the eagle and releases it. As the vision of the eagle is eightfold that of a human, it spots the prey easily and brings it to its master. The skillful hunters and their eagles can genuinely communicate with each other during the hunt, that the smallest shift in claw pressure on a hunter’s arm signals him that the bird has caught a scent.
The hunts mainly take place during the cold winter months when it is easier to spot the target against the white of the snow, while the animal’s furs are fully grown and thus, more valuable to the hunter. It is also the time when the birds are at their slimmest and hungriest form. In a traditional nomadic society, the eagle hunters were highly demanded, performing a duty to stock furs, since in the winter, the temperature can drop down to minus 40 degrees in the Altai mountains. Making warm and durable clothing was a vital necessity. However, under Stalin’s regime, eagle hunting, seen as an outdated and sectorial practice (in contrast to the overall unifying perception of Stalin of bringing all people under one flag), was prohibited throughout the Soviet Union, including today’s Kazakhstan. The tradition would have died out completely if it had not been passed down to the next generation by a handful of ethnic Kazakhs in Mongolia, at great risk.
Today, there are about 250 eagle hunters live and hunt in Bayan-Olgii Province of Mongolia, where ethnic Kazakhs make up most of the population. They follow the lifestyle of their ancestors, enduring freezing winters, dwelling in portable gers (yurts) and riding with their eagles on horseback. Though it’s undeniably a masculine job, Mongolia has embraced its first female eagle hunter recently, 18-year-old Aisholpan. Breaking a centuries-old tradition despite strong opposition from the community, the back then 13 years old Aisholpan had made headlines all over the world, starring in a hit Hollywood movie ‘The Eagle huntress’ depicting her journey to take her place in the men-dominated practice. This phenomenon had also allowed other female hunters to pursue their dream, and now there are some 10 female golden-eagle huntresses in Mongolia. The eagle hunters were at some point a dying breed, but not anymore. With both sons and daughters inheriting the practice, the tradition is coming back stronger than ever. In September and October, Golden Eagle Festivals take place in Bayan-Olgii, gathering many hunters, dressed proudly in their traditional garments, to compete for glory and show-off their skills and the unique bond between man and bird.
In modern society, the animal rights activists mistake that the eagles are captured and mistreated by Kazakhs like circus animals. In truth, the bird is not considered a slave to its master, but a partner and a family member whom they have raised since a young age, just like their child. The fellowship between the two is based on mutual respect. If it desires, the eagle can simply fly away during the hunt, but it always returns to its owner because it chooses to.
Golden eagles have an average lifespan of between 20-30 years, but regardless of this, the hunter releases the bird back into the wild after 10 years, to sustain the gene pool. It is a sad moment for both the hunter and the eagle. The hunter takes the bird afar and hides in a place where he can’t be seen or wait for the nightfall to release it, to make sure he would not be followed back home. It is said that even many years after their separation; the hunter thinks about his former companion, wondering if it had survived on its own or if it has managed to build a home for itself. For Kazakh hunters, having an eagle as a mate is like having wings of their own over a human body.
GOLDEN EAGLE FESTIVAL TOUR | Mongolia Private Tour
Golden eagle festival tour starts with a parade of well-dressed hunters with their eagles followed by various competitions. It includes the eagle catching fox skin dragged behind a horse and returning to their owner from a distance on command. Buzkashi- goatskin tug of war on horseback and Kyz Kuu- a man and woman race on horseback while the woman whips the man are other highly entertaining competitions.VIEW TOUR