The ethnic Kazakhs of Bayan Olgii, Western Mongolia, engage in the traditional pastime of eagle hunting (i.e., falconry), hunting for fur animals with captive eagles.
For thousands of years, falconry has been practiced in the Central Asian steppes. This ancient sport is shown in petroglyphs from the bronze period (2500 BC). Genghis Khan is mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols, capturing an eagle for his father. At the same time, Marco Polo speaks about Kubilai Khan embarking on large hunting expeditions using eagles and falcons.
As nomads were pushed onto collectivized fields during communist times, falconry decreased in popularity. Officials intent on promoting community sports and a Russian historical narrative opposed the sport because of its autonomous and individualistic character and the Central Asian heritage it recalled. The sport nearly vanished in Kazakhstan, but ethnic Kazakhs in China and Mongolia kept it alive.
Today, eagle hunting is gaining appeal among individuals eager to recover a cultural identity long-repressed during seventy years of communism. The strong international interest in eagle hunting has led ethnic Kazakhs to embrace this particular element of their history with pride. Back in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, eagle hunting is becoming more popular. Other Mongolian ethnic groups do not often hunt eagles, even though many are in Mongol-dominated regions like Zavkhan and Uvs. Mongolia sends a lot of eagles and falcons to the Middle Eastern Gulf nations, where falconry is still a popular hobby for the wealthy.
The Golden Eagle is common in the northern hemisphere and is found in higher latitudes of Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The bird is prevalent on the Americas’ east coast. Mexico, Kazakhstan, Albania, Germany, and Austria all have golden eagles as their national animals.
The eagle in Bayan-Olgii belongs to the ‘Altai’ subspecies, from the Altai mountains to far eastern Siberia. Eagles mate for life and build their nests on rocky crags. They live in the hills and hundreds of them have been spotted through the neighboring Zavkhan province’s arid grasslands.
Getting the Eagles
There are three methods eagle hunters go eagle hunting in Bayan Olgii. It is not simple, and eagles are highly valued:
- Typically, some meat is placed out as bait, and a net is set up to be pulled by the eagle hunter from afar. This method works best if the eagle hunters already have a tame bird to use as a decoy.
- You may once see an eagle gulping down a carcass to the point where it can barely take the flight to flee when you approach. On hot summer days, when there are many groundhogs around, eagles can overfeed to the point that an eagle hunter on horseback can chase them across the plains. The eagle will land and soar continuously until exhausted and captured.
- Climbing up the cliffs, one can locate an eagle’s nest and catch a chick, but this can be dangerous, as one of the adult eagles could pounce and throw the climber off the cliff. In addition, many hunters believe that catching an adult is better than a chick since mature birds are already experienced hunters, and training them is less challenging.
Hunters prefer female eagles because they grow larger and more powerful. Once captured, the eagle is ‘broken in’ by placing it on a perch and tying it so that it falls every time it attempts to fly away. The bird finally gets so tired that it will eat directly from the eagle hunter’s hand.
To the contemporary animal welfare campaigner, this may all seem a little repulsive. On the plus side, eagles may live for up to 30 years, and most eagle hunters in West Mongolia release their birds after eight years, although some claim it is tricky since they are afraid of other hunters capturing the helpless bird.
Every newly trained eagle will face a test in the wild at some point. To shorten the arrival of that time, eagle hunters often take along an experienced eagle from which the younger bird can learn.
The hunt is only held in winter when the most frequent preys, wolves, foxes, and rabbits, are at their best. However, some hunters will risk their larger birds on more hazardous species such as wolves and small deer. Eagle hunters ride with their eagles bandaged by a small leather hood and wearing heavy leather gloves to protect themselves from the eagles’ sharp talons. Because the eagles are so heavy, the hunters ride with a tiny wooden crutch that supports and elevates the arm carrying the bird from the saddle.
The eagle hunters will ride to a high peak with a 360° view over a vast valley miles away in the Altai Mountains. One of their young boys would often be sent to ride down the valley searching for the game. The eagle’s hood is removed when the game is seen, and ‘woosh!’ the eagle soars down the valley. Unlike falcons, which plunge at high speed and break their victim’s neck, the golden eagle glides down at an astonishingly slow rate and tackles its target to the ground, relying on sheer strength to overcome the animal and emerge victorious after the tumble.
The eagle hunters would ride up swiftly to kill the struggling victim, fearful that any fight may damage their birds. As a reward, the animal’s lungs will be given to the eagle. Hunters will utilize the animal’s skin for clothes or bedding or sold to fur merchants in Olgii.
Witnessing the Eagle Hunters
If you wish to visit the eagle hunters in west Mongolia, keep in mind that although you may view an eagle at any time, genuine hunting experiences are only available from November to February. The eagles do not hunt during the summer, which is the busiest season for visitors. However, seeing an eagle is simple; ask your guide to take you to one they know. Any good Kazakh tour guide would know about a local hunter nearby, or you may see one tied outside a ger as you drive by. Most eagle hunters are aware of the attraction their birds have with international visitors and Mongolian townspeople. Many will charge a price of around $5 US dollars or more to pose with it and let you hold one yourself and take pictures. It’s worth seeing, and it doesn’t seem ‘tacky’ or too touristic simply because a few other people may stop by each year to do the same thing.
Eagles are also popular with locals, and at local nadaams in Olgii, you can often find merchants charging for picture opportunities with eagles only for tourist money.
The Golen Eagle Festival
Also known as the Altai Eagle Festival, it is held in Bayan Olgii in late September or early October. It should be emphasized that the festival is not an old tradition, but rather something established in the past 15 years to attract tourism, proving very successful among Mongolians and tourists.
Those hoping to witness eagles ‘hunting’ will be disappointed since the hunting displays consist of a fox pelt pulled on a rope behind a horse. For these reasons, many genuine eagle hunters will not attend the event, and visitors planning a vacation out west for the express purpose of witnessing this celebration may be disappointed. But who has ever heard of a «hunting festival»? Any flighty game animal with half a brain will flee for miles if you gather a hundred visitors! Small groups are required for a genuine eagle hunting experience.
On the other hand, the Golden Eagle Festival has its drawbacks; make sure you have realistic expectations. On the plus side, you’ll get some excellent shots of eagle hunters holding their birds and dressed in traditional attire. You will be able to watch eagles compete in time trials, as well as camel racing and Buzkashi. Sure, it will be a little touristic. Still, there will be more local visitors than foreign tourists. It will be a great experience to see Mongolians in movement with this extraordinary legacy.
Note: The Eagle Festival is becoming more popular. So, if you wish to visit West Mongolia, you need to plan ahead of time.