The hunter and the eagle
It’s winter in the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia, and the hunter sits in his saddle, eyeing the tundra below. He’s high in his saddle atop his horse, and high above the earth having rode to an altitude of 5,000 feet.
He cannot see much of what is below, but for the golden eagle that sits stoically with its talons clinging to his hand, this is an ideal vantage point to start a hunt. The hunter takes the hood off of the eagle’s eyes, and for a time, the two stare off into the distance as the wind slaps their faces with cold, wet snow.
The snow is not a friend to the fox when the eagle watches. For the eagle, the fox’s burnt sienna fur stands out against the white, snowy backdrop like red paint on a canvas. Time has gone by, but no one’s keeping track. Then the eagle signals to his owner and dives off his hand, darting toward its prey.
Within seconds, the eagle has the fox by the neck, and the hunter is galloping down the mountainside on his horse. When the eagle delivered the fox to the eagle, the hunter finishes off the prey, and then it’s all over. The eagle and the hunter will eat well tonight.
A dying breed
The Burkitshi, as they are known in their native Kazakh, have been using birds of prey to hunt for over a thousand years. But today, their art is dying. It is estimated that there are less than 100 true Burkitshi left. They have become increasingly difficult to track, because they choose to pursue a nomadic lifestyle in some of the toughest terrain on the planet.
A handful of photographers have chosen to brave the elements and go in search of these men in their natural habitat. When they returned from the frozen tundra of Central Asia, they shared some of the most amazing photos ever seen. Their collections tell a story of tribe that has endured for centuries, but may be gone within a generation.
Keeping the tradition alive
While it is estimated that there maybe as little as 60 true-eagle hunters alive today, there are at least 250 people competing in the annual Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia. And while their numbers dwindle, the Burkitshi have also found another source for future eagle hunters — women.
The story of The Eagle Huntress became a phenomena in 2016 and showed the beauty of practice. While many from the older generations mock the work ethic of the younger and watch as their numbers shrink, there appears to be people who are still interested in carrying on the tradition. If the practice is met with this enthusiasm, then perhaps the trend of decline can be reversed.
The bond between hunter and eagle
The eagle and the hunter form a very special bond that begins when the hunter is a child and the eagle is an adolescent. There are no trees in the cold tundra near the Altai Mountains, so eagles make their nests high above the earth’s surface in the rocky crags that are dangerous for a human to climb to.
The child, around 12 years old, has to steal the eagle out of its nest when the eagle is about four years old (sometimes adults steal it for them). The child and eagle grow together, and the bond that is formed is deeper than most of their human relationships. In a sign of ultimate respect to the eagle, the hunter will eventually release him back into the wild.
The Burkitshi have been practicing eagle hunting for centuries. Westerners know the practice well as falconry, and it is estimated that the Burkitshi have been doing it since 940 AD. At that time the nomadic Burkitshi operated in Eastern Europe and the Ural Mountains, until political turmoil in Russia pushed them out and further east.
Since the mid-1800s, the Burkitshi have been practicing eagle hunting in the Altai Mountains, spanning from Kazakhstan, to Russian Siberia, Western China, and Mongolia. Today, they make up the largest minority in Mongolia, numbering close to 100,000 people. But there are far fewer hunters, and their hunting methods are legendary.
Raising the eagle
When Burkitshi started, it was only reserved for the noble classes, and then it became a right of passage for young men. Following suit with the progressive trend in the world, now girls are allowed to take part in Burkitshi. The eagle will be taken back to the hunters gers (like a yurt, as they’re Mongolia’s traditional felt-lined tents), and cared for like a child.
Even though the eagle sleeps outside, it is cared for like part of the family, and it does not fly away. The hunter will hand-feed the eagle. The bond is so deep that the eagle, a wild hunter-killer, will even allow the hunter to pet its belly like a dog.
Golden eagles are the bird of prey of choice for the Burkitshi, but there are other birds that have been used over the years, including falcons and raptors. But the golden eagle is the bird of prey of choice, and though the practice has become open to both men and women, the bird is always female.
Female golden eagles are bigger than their male counterparts, and when they’re fully grown, they can produce a wingspan of over eight feet. The average female golden eagle will weigh 15 pounds, and it is so powerful that while low and in flight, the force produced by its giant wings almost knocked the photographer of the above photo off the mountainside.
The OG eagle hunter
“The golden eagle is like no other bird,” said Orazhkan Shuinshi, a 92-year-old hunter, making him the OG Burkitshi. “They want to be with you. They love you. And they love to kill for you.” Perhaps it’s not surprising to hear the world “love” in Shuinshi’s description of the bird.
Many hunters have been known to love their birds more than their own wives. “The eagle is a holy bird,” continued Suinshi. “Treat them as your child. Love them and respect them. If you do this they will give everything back to you.” The Burkitshi take this seriously, even consider them part of the family.
Releasing the eagle
The wise old hunter Shuinshi has had 20 eagles in his life. Each one had a special place in his heart, as the life of a hunter during hunting season is that of loneliness and desolation. Given the challenge of surviving in the mountains in winter, it’s an extremely challenging task.
“Last year, I released my last eagle back into the mountains,” said Shuinshi. “It was like a member of your family has gone. I think about what that eagle is doing. If she’s safe and whether she can find food and make a nest. Have her hunts been successful? Sometimes I dream about these things.”
Shuinshi may dream about what his past eagles are doing, but for the hunter, the only thing on his mind is the hunt. Winter is the chosen season for eagle hunting, bringing eagle and hunter into weather that can get as cold as -40 C.
The eagle is used to these temperatures and actually favors hunting in the winter over any season. The white snow makes a fox stick out like a sore thumb, making them easy targets for trained eagles. But what isn’t easy is tracking these hunters down in their natural element. Photographer Palani Mohan knows all about the challenges.
A photographer journeys to find the eagle hunters
“At first, it’s cold and there’s no-one there, and it’s very desolate,” said Mohan, as he traveled through the Altai Mountain range tundra. “Eventually after many days of asking people, you find one.” Then Mohan would go through the painstaking task of trying to photograph the hunters while wearing layer upon layer of thermal gear.
Mohan, like many other photographers throughout history who’ve experienced the effects of extreme cold, says “my camera gear completely collapses. Batteries have a real issue with the cold. I used to go to sleep with the batteries taped to my armpits and other warm parts of my bodies, just to keep it warm.”
On the hunt
The hunter leaves his gers in the village on horseback, reigns in one hand, and his eagle perched on the other. The cold wind slaps his face, but he doesn’t mind, as his skin has been weathered to take a pounding over the years.
As he gets closer to the village, the hunter is not alone. Sometimes they hunt by themselves, but more often, they do it in groups or tandem. For these two hunters, they’ll work as a team — one will head into the hills, while the other stays at ground level. The topside hunter reaches his perch and stops, scanning the tundra below.
Hunter and prey
The hunter sits atop his horse, as the eagle sits atop his owner’s hand. He’s blindfolded this time until the last moment, as he waits patiently for his owner to lift the lid on his eagle eyes. The hunter below is moving with stealth and is out of site of the hunter above.
Then there’s a rustle, followed by a flurry of activity, as the hunter on the ground forces foxes from their den. They scatter over the tundra, and the hunter above removes the cap off his eagle. Within a second, he’s darting through the air at the foxes who have nowhere to hide. The hunter on the ground releases his eagle too. It’s another successful hunt.
The origins of the Burkitshi
Nomadic tribes such as the Burkitshi were a major pain-point for the ruling dynasties in China. In 936 the Khitans, who were the ancestors of the Burkitshi, began their conquest of a section of Northern China. They won the battle for control of a section of Manchuria in 947, then spent the next century conquering the rest of the region.
The Khitans were too powerful for the Song Dynasty in China, and even though the Khitans had assimilated many Chinese customs, the two sides did not get along. But because of the fierceness of their warriors, the Khitans commanded respect from all their adversaries.
The ancestors of Burkitchi were conquerors
The Khitans established the Liao Dynasty, and were so strong that the Song Dynasty had to pay them tribute so they wouldn’t conquer any more of their territory. Chinese and nomadic customs clashed under their rule, and purists stuck to their tradition of hunting with eagles.
The split in culture led to open warfare, and a group called the Jurchens, who enjoyed the practice of eagle hunting, revolted against their Liao Dynasty masters. They allied themselves with the Chinese Song Dynasty, and when they defeated the Liaos, they actually turned on their former allies the Chinese. After conquering them, they established their own dynasty.
The Burkitshi fought to keep their customs
The years between 1115–1207 were decidedly the golden years for the Jurchens (ancestors of Burkitshi). They established their own dynasty in Northern China, and a subgroup of their’s called the Kyrgz were back to eagle hunting and living their nomadic life.
But the good times weren’t meant to last as Northern China, then all of Asia, came under the rule of the Mongols. But life under the rule of the Khans was not all that bad for the Kyrgz, as the Mongols respected their nomadic way of life. Even though their dynasty was gone, for the next 700 years, they were allowed to hunt with their birds of prey.
The Burkitshi fled to Mongolia
During the communist takeover of the Kazakhstan region in the early 20th century, individual customs by ethnic tribes, religion, and minorities were all under attack. This caused the Burkitshi in Kazakhstan to flee to the Bayan Olgii Province in Mongolia, high in the Altai Mountains, where they were not persecuted for their customs.
Today the Burkitshi roam freely in an area that covers almost 18,000 square miles. The political landscape in the area has changed over the years, as communism left the region in the 1990s. These days, there are active efforts by the Kazakhstan government to lure the Burkitshi back.
Keeping the tradition alive
With the lure of the modern world beckoning, younger generations are having a hard time making the commitment to become an eagle hunter. The rigorous nomad lifestyle is taxing, not to mention enduring winter conditions that would make the most hardened individual shiver.
But there is another way that the tradition is kept alive, and the solution has attracted a lot of attention to eagle hunting. The Golden Eagle Festival was inaugurated in 1999 and has been captivating audiences every since. It has also expanded the number of eagle hunters, as there are perhaps 60 who actually hunt, but another 200 that compete.
The Golden Eagle Festival
In September, the Burkitshi gather in the town of Olgii ahead of the games, and on the day it begins, they ride out together dressed in their traditional Kazakh garb. An opening ceremony kicks off the competition, and then the Burkitshi compete in various categories to see who is the best eagle hunter.
Competitions are not carried out with live animals, as the eagles will chase down the furs of previous kills. Competitions include kokbar, which is a tug-o-war match on horseback, using a fox or goat pelt as the rope. The competitions surrounding eagle hunting award cash prizes to the person who has the fastest, most agile, and best eagle in the land.
The hunter climbs high
An old Kazakh proverb states: “Fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people.” Hunters climb high above the competition area, just as they would if they were actually on the hunt. They keep the hood on their eagle so as to keep her calm.
When the hood is taken off, the eagle will attack the fox or goat pelt and will only be as good as her owner has trained her. The hunter and eagle will be judged on how fast she can get there, so the eagle will speed to the target at maximum velocity.
Festival competitions prove who’s best
The eagle will also be judged on her agility, as her attack move will require a sudden stop and change of direction. This move must be on point, because her ability to lock onto the fox or goat pelt is also judged.
If the eagle is skilled, and the hunter has done a good job training her, then they may have chance at winning Best Turned Out Eagle and Owner or Best Eagle at Hunting Prey. There are also competitions that test the eyes of the eagle (10 times better than human eyes), as they are judged by their ability to spot prey and their owner at a distance.
The Eagle Huntress
Aisholpan Nurgaiv may not be a household name, but in 2016, at the age of 13, she captivated audiences everywhere as the subject of the documentary, “The Eagle Huntress.” The film was inspired by a series of photographs by photographer Asher Svidensky that went viral in 2014, and followed her competition in the Golden Eagle Festival.
Nurgaiv is not the first female falconer in history, as records indicate women may have participated in 10th century, but the Burkitshi have been an almost exclusively male group. After her photos went viral in 2014, when she was still training her eagle, she became the subject of the Eagle Huntress when she entered the Golden Eagle Festival of 2016.
The Eagle Huntress wins!
Nurgaiv certainly challenged tradition by becoming part of the Burkitshi and entering the Golden Eagle Competition, but she was determined as a child, and her father helped her train. Training eagles takes about five years, and Nurgaiv became a dedicated Burkitshi.
Nurgaiv showed nerves of steel when she entered the competition and she did extraordinarily well. It was her first competition and the first time a woman competed in the games. Even though she was only 16-years-old, she managed to win the competition of fastest eagle. Now, her story is known worldwide, and she is accepted as an equal in the Burkitshi.
Fake eagle hunters
Nurgaiv is not the only woman to have taken a fancy at eagle hunting and may have been inspired by Makpal Abdrazakova. In 2012 Reuters caught up with the lone woman Burkitshi. They didn’t follow her in a competition, but rather watched her do the real thing and hunt.
“Eagle hunting in my family began with my father, Murat, who learned the traditions from elders in Almaty region,” said Makpal. “At that time, only my father handled the bird. I began to feed her, but I didn’t get too close. When I grew used to her, my father got the approval and blessing of elders for my berkutchi career. Since then, I have been handling my Akzhelke. She is 10 now.”
Orazhkan Shuinshi, the OG eagle hunter, is concerned about the Burkitshi and their reliance on competitions. He told photographer Palani Mohan that, “there will always be men holding eagles, because it’s cool to do – people get dressed up in fur and hats and hold an eagle, and tourists will come and pay a few dollars and take a photo of them, but they’re not true eagle hunters.
The 60 or so, eagle hunters that are left are a major concern to Shuinshi, who believes that the 1,000-year-old tradition will be gone within a matter of a generation. “When they’re gone, the tradition will disappear,” he told Mohan.
Photographer Daniel Kordan meets the Burkitshi
They’re still out there today, and though their numbers are small, you can still find them in the winter hunting foxes with eagles. Photographer Daniel Kordan felt he was up to the task. On Christmas Eve 2018, we finally got to see the marvelous photos he took.
“They start the day early,” said Kordan. “By taking care of their horses, sheep, goats, cooking meals, and making furs. Closer to winter and in the spring, they migrate from one spot to another. Sometimes nomads need to travel thousands of kilometers. Every day they need to assemble their Ger tent and move to another place with all their herds.”
Out in the tundra of the Altai Mountains
There is no easy way to track a Burkitshi on the hunt. Photographers and researchers will ride for hundreds of miles in an all-terrain vehicle over the frozen tundra, tracking down a lead given to them by the hunters family. But they can only guess where he is. Trying to find a hunter is extremely tedious and resource intensive.
Fortunately, the life of the Burkitshi nomads are interconnected, and for Kordan, it was a matter of finding one, then it was easier to find the others. Other photographers will just wait for the annual Golden Eagle Festival, as it is much easier to do. But Kordan says it’s difficult to get good pictures there, so in 2019, he will travel to the desolate land again to shoot the eagle hunters.
The eagle lives on
The Burkitshi love their eagles, and form a sacred bond with them from the beginning. When a child is 11 or older, he or she will be given an eagle, or assist their fathers in taking one. Afterwards it will be brought in front of the elders and be given a ceremony where its name is chosen.
Over the course of the next five years, the hunter and the eagle will go through the trials and errors of hunting, as the father or an elder of the hunter trains them. Even landing on their arm the right way is something to be taught, as the powerful eagles stand a good chance of injuring the growing boy or girl.
Back to the wild
For six or seven years, the hunter and the eagle will hunt together and forge a bond eternal. When an eagle gets a kill, she is immediately fed the legs, and later will get the best organs in the prey. The hunter and the eagle will depend on each other — and love each other.
After that time, the hunter will ride deep into the mountain range, and place the bird on the ground, run away, and hide. The eagle will look for him, and the hunter will want it back, but the hunter respects the wild eagle too much to keep her in captivity. This way the eagle will also have a chance to procreate, thus ensuring the survival the species, as the relationship between eagle and hunter goes full circle.