The nomadic people of western Mongolia have a long tradition of hunting with eagles. For this, they develop a deep emotional bond with their birds
You hear it from far away: Miew–miew! Miew–miew! The high-pitched scream pierces the air, carrying across the crumbling brick wall and out into the dusty street: Miew–miew-miew!
It’s the scream of an eagle. Hunched in its cloak of feathers, it sits perched on a big, gnarled root in front of the stone house, incessantly opening and closing its beak. A scraggly rooster strutting across the yard makes sure to keep its distance.
The door of the house opens and a gray-haired man in dark pants and a blue short-sleeved shirt steps outside. “The eagle’s still a youngster,” he says. “Its instincts still tell it to beg for food.” The man holds out a wooden scoop full of meat to the bird, and it settles down instantly at the sight of the red chunks.
We’re in Bayan Ulgii Province in the westernmost part of Mongolia, almost 1500 kilometers from the capital, Ulaanbaatar. It’s home to Kazakhs, a Muslim minority that came to the country around 200 years ago. Besides the nomadic life they lead with their goats and cattle during the summer, they have preserved another tradition: hunting with golden eagles.
Shaimurat, our host, whose culture knows no surnames, is one such eagle hunter – a berkutchi. His people don’t see it as a sport, the 55-year-old tells us as we take a seat amid the unplastered walls and heavy rugs of his front room. Life is hard here in the Altai Mountains, where the summits tower 4000 meters into the sky and temperatures drop to 30 below zero in winter, and the eagle he hunts with helps him put dinner on the table every night. Each winter, Shaimurat and the other berkutchi hunt for hares, foxes and marmots. While the hunters and eagles wait in the mountains, beaters flush out whatever’s hiding in holes and crevices or between rocks. Then the raptors are released. They swoop down at speeds of over 200 kilometers per hour and seize the animals whose flesh feeds the hunters and whose fur is used to make coats and caps.
Falconry, says Shaimurat, is the highest form of hunting. After all, anybody can hunt with a rifle. His father and grandfather were berkutchi before him. He studied geology to begin with and then worked for mining companies. But after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, when the economy in communist Mongolia crashed as well, he bought a farm and turned his thoughts to the tradition of eagle hunting.
While Shaimurat’s wife Kulzira squeezes milk tea and lamb stew onto a little table already crowded with glass bowls full of cookies and sweets, he shows us the medals hanging on the walls, along with the many trophies, framed certificates and banners bearing his face. Shaimurat is a three-time winner of the Golden Eagle Festival at which, every October, the best berkutchi pit their skills against one another. When Shaimurat imitates the eagle’s swooping attack, he hovers over the sweets on the table in front of him, clenches his fingers into talons and then suddenly pounces forward and strikes: Thwack!
“If you want to hunt with a golden eagle, you first have to catch one,” he explains. That means climbing high into the Altais, to where the birds build their aeries and grabbing a chick. While the species is endangered in many countries, the golden eagle population in Mongolia is big enough to survive such an intrusion unscathed. A real berkutchi only ever takes one chick, Shaimurat assures me, and only ever females. “They weigh almost twice as much as the males, up to seven kilograms, are much stronger, and have a better hunting instinct.”
The berkutchi spends hours stroking the animal, talking gently and even singing to it
Before training can begin, the bird has to get used to its human hunting partner and learn to trust him. That’s why it will spend several months sitting tethered to a perch in the house or yurt, the nomads’ tent. Every day, the berkutchi spends hours stroking the animal, talking gently and even singing to it so that it learns to recognize his voice. Meat is placed in front of it until it eats out of its owner’s hand voluntarily – the sign that it has accepted him as its master. Then the actual hunting lessons begin. To demonstrate, Shaimurat packs a few chunks of meat into a leather pouch that the bird is meant to dive for – first from a height of one meter, then from two meters, then from the roof of the house and eventually from a cliff. These exercises are repeated hundreds of times until the bird has mastered them perfectly.
When the eagle is three or four years old and approaching maturity, the berkutchi shows it the skins and pelts of foxes and other potential prey so as to familiarize it with their appearance and scent. In the last phase of training, the berkutchi sets his eagle on pelts as they’re dragged behind a horse. Finally, before the hunting season begins, the animal is put on a diet. Only a hungry eagle is a good hunter. But even for the owner of a good hunting bird, times are hard: Up until the Russian revolution of 1917, an eagle could feed an entire family, says Shaimurat. During the socialist era, you could still swap a fox fur for a goat or sheep, whereas nowadays it’s only worth the equivalent of €10 at most. So even if a good eagle manages to kill 50 foxes in a winter, it’s barely enough to live on. We ask whether one of his two sons will take his place one day. Shaimurat doesn’t know. But he’s worried: “Our culture is vanishing.”
But 30-year-old Asalbek is also preserving the tradition. He sports a scar under his left eye and a green prayer cap – and is a seventh-generation berkutchi. His father won the first Golden Eagle Festival back in 2000, and since he died two years ago, Asalbek has been providing for his mother, five brothers and five sisters.
Asalbek is standing outside his hut, 10 kilometers from the village of Sagsai, showing his son Gambal how to hold an eagle properly. “You’re not a real Kazakh until you can command an eagle,” he says. This much is clear: For the Kazakh minority, eagle hunting is a defining part of their identity.
Indeed, according to Asalbek, the bird is more than just a hunting assistant – it’s an integral part of the family. The eagle is seen as an individual that grows, develops and has its own character. In the hot summers, Asalbek bathes the bird regularly so that its feathers don’t become disheveled by the dry air and sandy dust. On cold winter nights, he brings it into the house or yurt, keeping it warm with blankets. “When my eagle thrives, my family and I thrive as well – I’m convinced of that.”
Asalbek has reared four eagles so far and every one of them meant something to him. As a rule, he tells us, a hunter sets his bird free after 10 years. “You want to give it the chance to breed and live a long life.” But every goodbye is difficult, says Asalbek, and tells of golden eagles that injure the tendons in their feet or lose toes or talons and cannot hunt anymore, and are then taken care of until the end of their days –and of berkutchi who keep vigil for a week when a bird dies before carrying it up into the mountains and asking its spirit for forgiveness.
Asalbek wants to show us his hunting grounds. He pulls on the maroon coat that belonged to his father, heavy boots, the thick leather gauntlet the eagle perches on, and the red fox fur cap that keeps his head warm. Asalbek leaps onto his horse. He leads us through vast meadows; still soaked with the spring meltwater, they squelch beneath the horses’ hooves. We cross scree fields. And then, slowly, we climb the first foothills. From there we can see a river meandering across the plain, the snow-capped peaks of the Altai Mountains gleaming on the horizon.
Once we reach the top, Asalbek lets the eagle take flight. Pushing off with its muscular legs, the bird beats its wings, climbing higher and higher towards the sun that’s occasionally visible between the leaden clouds. But even those few rays are enough to make the bird’s plumage gleam: The golden eagle is aptly named.
“When I sit here watching my bird, I sometimes dream of setting this eagle free again, too,” says Asalbek. One day, when the sun is shining, he’ll bring the bird up here, lay a slaughtered sheep on a rock, let her eat her fill, send her off one last time – but not call her back. He might even have to hide so that the animal doesn’t follow him home. But sooner or later, the eagle will fly away, seeming to dwindle in size until it looks hardly any bigger than a sparrow before eventually disappearing in the golden skies. Asalbek doesn’t say it, but his eyes reveal what he’ll be thinking when that moment comes: Goodbye, my feathered friend.
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