Lifelong spiritual bond between the Kazakh eagle hunter and his golden bird

Maybe western animal rights activists would protest against the practice of Kazakh Eagle hunting, but try arguing with a Mongolion hunter who’s upholding his ancestors’ thousands of years old tradition that he is treating his eagle poorly, or is needlessly hunting down small prey. The Kazakh Eagle hunter, or berkutchi, is proud of his eagle, having raised the bird eversince she was a young chick, living alongside eachother for 10 years, up until the moment it’s time to release her back into the wild to have a nest. They say, up in the mountain ranges of remote western Mongolia, all a berkutchi needs is a strong horse, a faithful dog to guard his house and a golden eagle, and this has been the case for many centuries.

Ethnic Kazakhs number around 100,000 and are the largest minority in Mongolia. They are mostly settled around the nation’s desolate far west, around the Altai mountain range, which stretches from China through Mongolia and Kazakhstan to Russian Siberia. Sayat, hunting with golden eagles, was once a very prestigious practice. Many Khans of the Mogolian era owned several golden eagles as well as a dozen other birds of prey, to enhance the possibilities of one of them being capable of catching lager animals, which would grant them even higher status. Generally, the golden eagle is regarded the most fierce, with a wing-span of 6.6.ft, razor sharp claws and with the ability to dive at the speed of an express train- which would be up to 90mph. As they are highly skilled hunters, and trained to do so, they can catch and kill anything between a marmot or owl, up until a fox, gazelle or even a wolf. The bigger the prey she catches, the higher the prestige of her berkutchi, which is also why eagle hunters usually choose female eagles over male eagles, as females are regarded more aggressive and weigh up to 7 kilograms, whereas the males are a third of that.

Considering the care and beautiful merits of training and holding a golden eagle, it might not come as a surprise that a quality golden eagle can be worth up to 12.000 dollars. Young eagles are captured when they are around 2 years old. The capture, training and keeping of eagles is a highly ritualised activity, and both the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz are experts. Most of the birds, which can have a life expectancy of 40 years, are caught young, hooded and placed in a cage with a perch that constantly sways while the berkutchi sings and chants to it, to imprint the sound of his voice and impress his personality on the bird. The eagle is tamed by bounding her ankles with leather strappings and tying her to a wooden block on a rawhide line. Every time she tries to fly away she flips upside down. After two days or so the eagle is exhausted and tame. She then can be approached and taught to return to her berkutchi. Later on, the eagle is able to distinguish human voices and will obey only that of his master. Training eagles takes a  dedicated 3 to 4 years, must be done by one person, and requires constant daily attention. When the eagle is almost an adult, the trainer shows it the hides and furs of the animals it must hunt so that it becomes used to the smell and characteristics of the prey. All of this is done with directed commands. Training continues by dragging a fox fur behind a galloping horse. Not all eagles can be trained this way, but those that do show intense loyalty. Although never tethered they always return after killing their prey. Skilled hunters even manage to get the bird to kill the prey while scarcely leaving a mark on its fur, so that her master is still capable of selling it for good money.

Once the eagle is old and skilled enough, the berkutchi and his horse work together with the golden eagle to predominantly catch and fetch hares, marmots and foxes. They ride to their destination on horseback and perch themselves on a hill overlooking a stretch of land so the eagle can scan the valley below for prey. The primary object of the eagle is to catch the prey and grasp it long enough until the hunter shows up and clubs it to death. The eagles are given a piece of meat as a reward after each hunt. They are kept hooded when they are not hunting to keep them calm. Before and after a harsh trek, the eagle sits on her hunters’ arm with wild eyes, being gently cradled. The eagles seem to love being carried like that, but it demands a lot of strength from her master. To allow the hunter to hold her for long periods of time, a special device has been fitted into the saddle of the specially trained horse (bercut).

Although eagles can live for thirty or forty years, the hunters keep each one for only about ten, then release it to live out its last years in the wild. The bird is taken far away, and the hunter sometimes has to hide, or wait for darkness, to keep it from following him home. Australian documentary photographer Palani Mohan spent several years documenting the culture and its people, and spoke with 90-year old hunter Shuinshi in 2012, when the old man had just released his last eagle the year before and said: “It was as if a member of my family had left. I think about what that eagle is doing; if she’s safe, and whether she can find food and make a nest. Have her hunts been successful? Sometimes I dream about these things.”

Kazakh eagle hunting represents a cultural symbol that connects all people of Kazakhstan, even the national flag depicts a golden eagle against the sun. Every year, competitions are held across Kazachstan, Mongolia and China, taking place between November and December, when hunting was traditionally done. However, there are only about 50 to 6o real eagle hunters left, you don’t find them at these competitions or in crowded areas, because their birds aren’t used to the car honks or the sirens around Ulaanbaatar. You need to go deep into the desolate land, where the cold plummets to temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius. Some estimates put the average around 250 hunters, but Mohan argued that most of them are just men with eagles posing for tourists. The ‘real’ ones are proud men whose faces reveal the harshness of the beautiful barren landscape they call home and have a spiritual connection with their eagle. But these men are old and grow weaker due to the unforgiving winters, and thus Mohan has warned for the traditional berkutchi becoming a dying breed. The biggest threat isn’t the cold, it’s the younger generations moving to the cities, wanting to wear jeans and go into town to listen to music and earn money. Eagle hunting is a lonely way of living compared to that.

You might even say, under the circumstances, it’s a miracle the practice is still alive today. In Mongolia, eagle hunting was largely banned during Soviet rule and the tradition would have disappeared altogether had it not been preserved by ethnic Kazakhs in China and Mongolia. More than a million Kazakhs took their skills to their graves during a Soviet-inflicted famine in the 1930s when Josef Stalin’s forced collectivization campaign erased entire villages in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia. “Hunger, repression, collectivization. People had no time to worry about their eagles,” said Yepemes Alimkhanov, a government official in charge of reviving national sporting activities. However, Alimkhanov is hopeful when asked about the current status of Kazakh eagle hunting; “It was a tragedy. But the tradition is coming back. Our sons and daughters have inherited it.”