Mongolians have a special relationship with golden eagles. Ancient cultures often have traditions that are visually stunning to outsiders, and none may be more so than the Khazakh hunters in the Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Combining glorious traditional dress with the regal splendor of an eagle mid-flight, these owners and their birds make incredible photography subjects.
But more than that is the relationship that develops between hunter and eagle, one that is almost like that between a child and his parent. But like so many traditional ways of living, this one is rapidly fading, and some suggest there are fewer than 100 true eagle hunters left.
These Mongolians capture the eagles when they are about four years old, so that they are able to adapt to humans and become willing to take instruction for hunting. Once trained, they hunt for a range of mammals, including foxes and other small prey. They soar over their range, find their target and bring it home to their human masters.
It is a tradition that dates back many centuries. The golden eagle may live as long as 30 years, but hunters keep them for only about 10; they then return the birds to the wild, to live out their remaining years in freedom.
Outsiders have been fascinating by the hunters’ way of life for decades, and many have written about them, documenting their lives and taking photos. But being fascinated by the burkitshi, as the hunters are properly called, is not enough to help preserve their ancient way of hunting.
Several whom Mohan interviewed while chronicling their lives lamented that the younger generation isn’t up to the challenges of living as true burkitshi. One said that younger people “want only to be inside, in the warm, and they keep their eagles just for festivals and treat them as pets.”
That is unacceptable, at least to some of the older eagle hunters, who believe using the birds strictly for show and festivals is unnatural to the raptors (as their eagles are called). “The people are lazy and that makes the eagles lazy. Eagles are wild fighting birds. They are not something to hang on the wall like a carpet,” one traditionalist lamented.
If the circumstances were not so extraordinary, and happening in a mountain region in Mongolia, it would sound like any other complaint older people often express about the younger generation.
The eagle hunters have traditionally — but not exclusively — been male. However in 2014, a then-13 year old girl, Aisholpan Nurgaiv decided to buck tradition and enter in the nation’s Golden Eagle Festival. Her story and commitment to eagle hunting was so inspiring to those who saw viral videos about her that she soon became the focus of a Disney documentary, “The Eagle Huntress,” released in 2016. Here she is below:
But in spite of Nurgaiv’s enthusiasm for her country’s traditional hunting, Mohan cautions in his book, “Hunting With Eagles: In The Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs,” that they are a “dying breed,” and that there many be as few as 50 left in the region. Those who do continue are getting old, and many have released their eagles back into the wild.
That’s a very wrenching and emotional moment, one man told Mohan. He took his eagle far from his home, so it would not follow him back, but it almost broke his heart to do it. “It was as if a member of my family left,” the old man remarked about this final eagle he released. “I think about what that eagle is doing; if she’s safe and whether she can find food and make a nest…sometimes I dream about those things.”
It’s impossible to predict whether the way of life for the kazakh Mongolians and their eagles will continue throughout the 21st century. It seems unlikely, in some respects, but conversely one hopes that these people, who have hunted with golden eagles for many centuries, will find a way to persevere and pass on their legacy.