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West Mongolian eagle hunting and the Eagle Festival

West Mongolian eagle hunting and the Eagle Festival

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

The pursuit

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.

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  • Gobi bears are tiny and slender, yet they have long legs. Fur — its golden-brown, shaggy coat.
  • Gobi bear claws and teeth are tiny and blunt because they are worn down by wandering and digging for food in their harsh, rocky environment.
  • Gobi bears mostly graze on the roots of wild rhubarb. They also consume wild onions, berries, grass shoots, flowers, and a few insects and rodents. 
  • Hibernation – this bear must occasionally spend the chilly winter curled up in draughty bushes rather than a lovely, warm lair.
  • The Gobi bear typically has one cub every two years. The cub is born in the winter lair of the bear.

Human activity in the Gobi has undoubtedly impacted animal population numbers and how they utilize the environment, with cattle regularly traversing specific regions. Overgrazing has damaged Mongolia’s once-vast grasslands, placing further strain on already stressed native species. However, the region’s most significant dangers are now posed by large-scale mining activities for coal, copper, and gold. Mineral resources continue to attract multinational mining companies, placing the local population under even more significant strain.

 

True Desert Survivor!

Gobi bears continue to exist as a distinct ecotype in the Gobi Desert of south-western Mongolia. The Gobi bears, also known as ‘Mazaalai’ and considered a national treasure by Mongolians, live in three major regions, or oasis complexes, inside the ‘Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area (GGSPA) – Zone A’ and nowhere else. This protected area, which covers approximately 46,369 km2, was created in 1976 to enhance safeguards for the indigenous flora and wildlife. It is one of the most extensive reserves in the world.

Gobi bears are primarily found in the GGPSA, surrounded by three oases: Atas Bogd Mountain, Shar Khuls Oasis, and Tsagaan Bogd Mountain. Each oasis complex consists of seven or more springs separated by about 70,100 km of pure baked pancake flat gravel from the next complex. Watering holes vary in size and volume, from a dry ditch that receives water just once a year to a water reserve the size of a typical garden pond and may contain a scattering of trees or nearby tall grasses. Like most other bear species, Male Gobi bears travel much longer distances and have more extensive home ranges (2,400 km2), often going great distances between oases to mate with many female bears.

Due to the abundance of minerals in the region, the GGSPA is often targeted under cover of night by illicit hunters and miners hoping to make undiscovered discoveries. Due to large areas of unusable terrain, these humans are usually limited to hunting around the same oases that the bears utilize, increasing the risk of confrontation. Local rangers try hard to monitor the GGSPA and prevent this, but this is not always successful with limited resources spread over such a large region.

 

How do the bears manage to survive?

Gobi bears are well suited to the Gobi Desert’s limited food supply and harsh habitat. Gobi bears mainly consume the rhizomes of wild rhubarb (Rheum nanum), berries, especially nitre bush (Nitraria spp.), grass shoots (e.g., Phragmites), wild onion (Allium spp.), Ephedra, and other desert spring-supported plants. Small quantities of animal matter (mainly rodents, accounting for around 1% of total consumption) are also eaten. It is widely known that brown bear subspecies go through a phase of increased food intake (hyperphagia) in late summer and autumn to develop fat reserves for hibernation and progeny production when in winter dens.

According to GGSPA rangers, the region suffered a 14-year drought from 1993 to 2007, during which yearly precipitation decreased from roughly 100 mm to 50 mm. Because Gobi bears rely significantly on flora that needs rainfall for development and fruiting, the drought may have harmed the bears’ physical condition and reproductive performance during this period.

 

The current status

The Mongolian Redbook of Endangered Species, the Zoological Society of London, and the IUCN Bear Specialist Group classify Gobi bears as Critically Endangered. This evaluation was based on estimations that the population included fewer than 50 adult animals and was isolated from other closely genetically related populations by a sufficient distance that immigration/emigration could not reasonably be anticipated to occur. It is classified as a critically endangered species in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which Mongolia is a member. There are no Gobi bears in captivity anywhere in the world.

Before the 1970s, Gobi bear distribution in southern Mongolia expanded beyond its current boundaries and covered regions to the north and east of the GGSPA. This region included Edriin Ridge, the Eej Khayrkhan Nature Reserve west of Bayantoorai, and parts of the Gurvan Saykhan National Park east of it. It is unknown why these places are no longer inhabited.

According to the Gobi Bear Project, there are now fewer than 40 individuals remaining in the wild. While the population seems to be steady or slightly growing, considerable effort has to be made to ensure these bears have more chance of survival.

 

The Gobi Bear’s future

Building the GGSPA’s capabilities will be essential to the Gobi bear’s long-term survival, especially as the area faces growing pressure from mining projects in the coming years. Increased involvement with the local people, adding the proper application of what we have learned from our scientific study will be critical to ensuring that this magnificent species does not go extinct. This involves training, education, and providing the instruments and logistical skills required for monitoring and patrol programs, which are critical to the integrity and security of the environment on which the bears rely.

The Gobi bear population can be saved and recovered, but only with more significant funding, improved public awareness, and ongoing study. You may assist by informing as many people as possible about these incredible bears and our efforts to preserve them or make a significant contribution to the cause. All donations, in any form, are much welcomed.

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  • The hornbill is one of the few birds with eyelashes to shield them from sun, dust, and debris. Their eyelashes are modified feathers.
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