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, with the discovery of the first eagle hunting babe, 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.
For those in Almaty but without the time or funds to visit an actual hunter, there’s a guide to falconry monuments throughout the city (scroll down).
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.
Hunting with golden eagles: what it actually is
Being an eagle hunter, called bürkitshi in Kazakh or bürkütchü in Kyrgyz, is traditionally a hereditary profession and a life-long commitment on the Eurasian steppe. The relationship between eagle hunter and bird is intense, and comes before anything else. Eagles can be taken as fledglings from the nest or as adults from specially-built nets that are baited with pigeons, chickens or crows. After the take, the bird is fitted with a leather hood and slowly introduced to its new environment.
After that, the training begins. Bürkitshis usually take female birds, as they are bigger, and considered more aggressive. Hunters in Mongolia and Xinjiang, practicing a more traditional lifestyle, hunt from horseback, whereas hunters in the former Soviet Union aren’t afraid to stick their birds in old Ladas and head for the hills. Either way, the hunter holds the eagle on one hand with the help of a wooden crutch; not an easy feat, since a trained domesticated eagle can weigh more than 10 kg. After the eagle has swooped down on its prey, it’s essential for the hunter to react quickly, before the prey has been ravaged completely by the eagle. After several years, the eagle is released to continue his life in the wild and procreate.
Eagles prey on small mammals and birds. Though videos can be founding of eagles hunting deer or wolves, it is uncommon. Larger prey present a danger to the predator, and most hunters will not risk the welfare of their bird on such a catch. Mostly eagles hunt for prey about half their size: rabbits, hares, badgers and marmots.
The Central Asian Falconry Project has a fantastic website for learning more about this tradition. There are dozens of scanned books, films and photos to explore and a blog to see what’s latest in the eagle hunting world.
Jimmy Nelson’s photographs are a unique testimony to the traditional Kazakhs of Mongolia.
An exciting video clip comes from the BBC’s Human Planet. The whole episode reveals more.
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.