New Future for the Ancient Art of Golden Eagle Hunting
Eagle hunting is an ancient art which has been in existence on the Central Asian Steppe, from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and Mongolia, for some 6,000 years. Societal and political changes have meant that this ancient practice is a dying tradition. But a new generation of Kazakhs, including girls for the first time, is determined to carry forward the ancient tradition of their forefathers.
Eagle hunting is particularly prominent among the Kazakhs living in Bayan-Ölgii Province of Mongolia, of which there are an estimated 250 eagle hunters remaining. Their hunting practice, so-called 'horse-riding eagle falconry', is unique and is practiced only with trained Golden Eagles on horseback. Hunts take place during the cold winter months when it is easier to spot their target against the white of the snow.
The eagles are highly skilled and powerful hunters. Sent out to hunt fawns, foxes, or other small animals, the eagle dives down and kills them swiftly, usually breaking the neck in its powerful claws and rarely leaving a mark on their prey.
The eagle is a powerful and efficient hunter. Photo credit: Timothy Allen
Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, the forbearers of the modern nomads, had thousands of hunting birds, and their falconry expeditions were detailed by Marco Polo. From ancient times, eagle hunters in the nomadic herder societies had the role of preserving and stocking furs. The high social status of the berkutchi (trainer) and his family was conditioned by the climate, as warm strong and durable clothing for the people during the winter seasons was a vital necessity. Apart from hunting, berkutchi would also give spiritual support to pregnant women, as the eagle was seen as a symbol of well-being and power.
Berkutchy, as the art of eagle hunting is called, is a life's profession, and in Kazakhstan is often a hereditary one. The relationship between the bird and its master is constant and all-consuming and the eagle comes to be considered part of the family. In the training of a young eagle, the owner must sacrifice his sleep for a long period as he hand feeds the growing bird. Initially, the eagle wears a hood over its eyes to keep it calm and to ensure its dependence on its owner. But the bird is no slave to its master, only a partner in hunting. The bond becomes one of lifelong trust and it is said that as the man trains the eagle, so does the eagle train his man.
The eagle wears a hood, keeping it calm, and ensuring its dependence on its master. Photo source.
The capture, training and keeping of eagles is a highly ritualised activity. It must be done by one person and requires constant daily attention over many years. The trainer constantly sings and chants to the young bird to imprint the sound of his voice and impress his personality on the bird. Eventually, the eagle will only obey the voice of his master and no others.
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 special commands. Once trained, the eagle goes out with the hunter on horseback, riding on his arm. All of the hunting is left to the eagles, as their vision is eightfold that of a human, and they can spot their prey several kilometres in the distance. Although never tethered they always return after the kill.
The eagle rides on the arm of its trainer. Photo credit: Timothy Allen
Over thousands of years, berkutchis have always been male and begin their training around the age of 13, when a boy is strong enough to carry the weight of a grown eagle. Mongolia’s rough terrain and difficult climate are part of the reason why eagle hunting was meant for men alone. However, in Mongolia, a country where most of its educated population are women and most institutes are run by females, changing society means changing traditions, and the nation now has its first female eagle hunters.
Thirteen-year-old Ashol Pan, the daughter of an experienced eagle hunter, is the youngest female berkutchi in Mongolia. However, her path wasn’t easy as she struggled to break into a masculine dominated past-time.
Ashol Pan, the youngest female eagle hunter in Mongolia. Photo credit: Asher Svidensky
Photographer Asher Svidensky spent four months trekking through western Mongolia and decided to focus his shots on the next generation of hunters who are the future of keeping this dying part of their culture alive.
“I decided to focus myself; stop looking for a portrait of a centuries old image of a Kazakh eagle hunter, and instead represent the future of this ancient Mongolian tradition,” said Svidensky.
In the past, the idea of female eagle hunters would have been unthinkable, but now girls are being taught to control these magnificent birds of prey to replace their brothers. Ashol's father, Han Gohadok, explained that his eldest son was due to take over the hunting duties but, as he had been drafted to the army, it was unlikely he would return to resume them. Despite his daughter's skill, Han said he would never think of making her take up the role full-time, unless she explicitly asked to do so.
Ashol Pan and her eagle. Photo credit: Asher Svidensky
Svidensky explained that if the ancient art of eagle hunting is to see a major cultural shift to encompass women, it will be on their terms.
“From the father’s answer I realized that the idea of women’s participation in keeping the tradition is a possible future, but just like many other aspect of Mongolian life, it's an option which women will need to take on by themselves.”
Featured image: The eagle hunters of Mongolia. Photo credit: Jimmy Nelson
The Kazakh – Before They Pass Away (Jimmy Nelson)
Boys to Men - Mountains: Life in thin air – Timothy Allen
Eagle hunters of Mongolia - Svidensky
Hunting with eagles in Kyrgyzstan – Advantour
The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of Western Mongolia – Vagabond