In what is probably the single-most spectacular way of going shopping for a fur coat, Kazakh and Kyrgyz hunters take a lethal bird of prey from its mother, nurse it until it has a wingspan larger than most humans, and then train it to attack fast-moving prey from the air and hand it over to them, their masters.
Hunting with golden eagles is a tradition reaching back thousands of years on the Eurasian steppe. Nowadays it is still practiced in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and in Xinjiang province, China.
Find out how to see this tradition in action.
Eagle hunting in Mongolia
The eagle hunters of Mongolia are perhaps the most famous in the world, with a well-known photojournalist visiting roughly every few months to document “an ancient tradition, revived in modern times”.
Kazakhs make up 90 percent of Mongolia’s autonomous region of Bayan-Olgii, where they have lived for hundreds of years in the Altai mountains and practiced this most ancient form of falconry. In Kazakh, an eagle hunter is called a bürkitshi, from the Kazakh word for golden eagle, bürkit.
Other times they might be called qusbegi, or “lord of the birds.” These lords of birds train their bürkits to catch corsac fox (treasured for its rich red fur), hares, and marmots.
Traditional eagle hunting in Mongolia only happens in winter, from late October to March, when the eagles have finished their yearly feather change, animal furs are most beautiful, and snow cover provides the best backdrop for spotting prey. If you want to see this in action, prepare to dress warm.
Eagle hunting festivals
The easiest way to see eagle hunting in action is on one of the 2 festivals in Bayan Olgii: the smaller Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival and the big Golden Eagle Festival. They are held late September-early October.
The festivals can get a bit touristy, and are perhaps unsustainable if they continue this way in the long run, but they are by far the easiest way to get a taste for the tradition. If you want to see the real deal, in winter, reserve plenty of time to get to know locals.
Eagle hunting in Kazakhstan
Eagle hunting in Kazakhstan is practiced in small villages all over the country, but some of the most famous hunters come from the Almaty region. The tradition is getting a lot of attention lately, but Kazakhstan’s festivals are still not as well known as those in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. Russian speakers can check the website for the Kazakhstan National Sports Association for festival dates, which change every year.
There is an eagle hunting museum in the small town of Nura, two hours east of Almaty. They can arrange presentations, but the prices are steep.
November to February is the best time to see eagle hunting, as the eagles moult in summer, and do not fly.
Eagle hunting in Kyrgyzstan
The tradition of eagle hunting in Kyrgyzstan is less well-known than that of Kazakhstan, but you can see eagles hunting here nonetheless.
A very active falconry group, the Salburun Federation, organizes regular festivals in the fall and winter, and its most recognized master, Talgar Shaibyrov, regularly takes visitors in Bokonbaevo, where he works in partnership with the local office of Community Based Tourism.
Like elsewhere, real hunting happens in winter, whereas summer is only for showcasing the birds.
Eagle hunting in Xinjiang
Eagle hunting is practiced in Xinjiang by Kyrgyz in Akqi county, outside Kashgar near the Kyrgyzstan border, and by Kazakhs in the Altai Mountains in the northern part of the province. There is an excellent article on eagle hunting in the Dzungarian basin of Xinjiang on Saudiaramco. Some tour operators have suggested it’s possible to visit Kyrgyz or Kazakh falconers, but special permits are needed to visit the border regions where these minorities live.
If you do decide to go out on your own, you can be sure to see the real thing. There is also an eagle hunting festival organised yearly in the Kyrgyz county of Akqi county in spring and one in Shynggyl in the Altai.[/su_spoiler]
Written by Steven Hermans, editor of Caravanistan, and Dennis Keen, falconry scholar and editor of the Central Asia Falconry Project. Pictures courtesy of Dennis Keen.