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Eagles inhabit the vast grasslands and mountains of the Central Asian Steppe, from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan across into Mongolia. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, forbears 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 Mongolia’s Bayan Ulgii Province, 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, as well as compete in traditional Kazakh games on horseback.
The bond between hunter and eagle is strong, as the eagle is a fiercely independent creature, and 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, plus are 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 older birds are actually better hunters and have the killer instinct needed to bring down wolves and foxes. Bikbolat says that the eagle chicks can be obtained by finding nests on mountain tops during hatching season, but that to get older birds they must resort to setting out traps baited with fresh meat, or tethering an accompanying eagle next to a carcass, provoking a flying eagle into a jealous rage if it occurs in their territorial space. Once trained, the eagle goes out with the hunter on horseback, riding on his left arm.
The awareness between the veteran hunters and their birds is such 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 use to pick off hares, but most of the hunting is left to the eagles, as their vision is eight times as sharp as that of humans. 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. One could say that with enough livestock, hunting is superfluous, and mainly done for sport.
However, the 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 and is a highly refined art form that has been passed down for generations.
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 by the hunters, and are always released back into the wild after 10 years or so.
A Kazakh proverb sums up the hunters’ lives out in one of the world’s most remote places: “Fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people.”
Mongolia can be reached from Bangkok via Air China, which has daily flights to Ulaan Baatar via Beijing
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 (www.eznisairways.com).
To set up visits with eagle hunters or tour anywhere in Mongolia, local outfitters Kazakh Tour are recommended
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