Gallery - What's New - EAGLE HUNTERS OF MONGOLIA
Mongolia.The name alone seems to conjure up images of horse-back warriors spilling and plundering across and beyond its remote high-mountain steppes. For a period of time in the 13th Century this isolated home of nomadic tribes, coalesced around a leader to become one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. At its height its reach extended as far west as Hungary, eastward to Korea, south to India and northward into Russia.
The founder and leader of the Great Mongol Empire was of course Genghis Khan. The methods used in his conquests, as documented, were brutal and violent – but not always. Parallel and countering Mongol savagery, Khan evolved a type of governance that was incredibly forward thinking, at times so appealing to his adversaries, that he subjugated many foreign states without fighting at all. He offered fair treatment to any and all that would join him (if they didn’t fight) and freedom to keep their own culture and religious beliefs. He instituted equitable and balanced taxation on their goods, essentially creating the first free trade zone. As well he decreed that in state relations, a county’s representative would be guaranteed diplomatic immunity – thus founding the first form of ambassadorship.
Oddly enough, after this Mongol Empire faded, it was evident that Genghis Khan left behind no palaces, no monuments, no physical structures to celebrate his accomplishments. Even his grave site is unmarked and unknown. But now 800 years later, with Mongolia’s newly found independence (from the Soviet Union in 1991) there is a current wave of Mongolian pride and nationalism. The country seems to have rediscovered its true soul in its nomadic past, celebrating it by renaming the city square of the capital, the international airport, its university, hotels and with the erection of number of statues, all in the honour of the Great Khan.
In the extreme western corner of Mongolia, surrounded by Russia, Kazakhstan and China, is the remote region of Bayan-Olgii. While the rest of Mongolia is mostly Buddhist (after years of Soviet purging the influence of that religion now is quite diluted) this mountainous enclave in the extreme west is ethnic Kazakh and Islamic. The Kazakhs have their own language and culture and have stayed essentially nomadic, living in gers (a round yurt) while herding their sheep, goats, yaks and horses.
One of the customs that distinguish the Kazakhs from the Mongolians or from other high-altitude nomads, is their relationship with Golden Eagles. For 2000 years, the nomads of this region have captured and trained Golden Eagles to be their own personal hunters.
In the fall of 2016 I travelled to Bayan-Olgii to watch, learn and document the practice of nomad herders hunting with golden eagles. These apex predators have a wing span of 8 feet and weigh 15 pounds. Only female eagles are used to hunt, being more aggressive and almost 40% larger than their male counterpart. I spent a week living with two eagle hunters in the isolate interior of West Mongolia; Beken Ermekbay, 54, and his family and then later with Tenelhan Bugibai, 70, and his family. Both were long time eagle hunters – in Tenelhan’s case the tradition traced back six generations. I learned that the capture, training and maintenance of golden eagles is a time consuming and a highly demanding pursuit. Given that each eagle has a different personality, both hunters agreed that the number one ingredient needed to effectively train an eagle was patience – all the more impressive considering the already heavy workload each have caring for five or six hundred animals.
After the two home stays I attended an Eagle Festival, held 8 kilometers outside the town of Olgii (it’s been an annually held event for the last 17 years). Over a two-day period, 92 hunters gathered with their trained eagles to participate in an enthusiastic and competitive display of eagle hunting ability, unbelievable horsemanship and exhibitions of traditional archery. The eagle hunters that participated ranged in age from 12 to 75 years and included a couple of young 13 and 14 year-old girls.
The day after the festival, during a snow storm, 8 hunters joined forces in the first hunt of the season. (Eagle hunters use their birds to hunt rabbits, foxes, marmots and other small animals but only in winter.) Watching them riding atop mountain ridges on their small powerful horses, their traditional long fox fur coats and hats covered in snow, with two-foot high golden eagles perched on their arms, it felt like I was transported into another time, or perhaps into an episode from the Game of Thrones.
:: BACK TO GALLERY