In a land where you feel time has forgotten, live the Kazakh people that embrace traditions as old as the nomadic Khitans from Manchuria. A people who conquered part of northern China around 940AD.
Today, approximately 250 Kazakh men live in the western Mongolia province of Bayan-Olgi and carry on a tradition first depicted by the Khitan archives. This tradition is “horse riding eagle falconry”. The skill of using a Golden Eagle to capture prey while riding through the mountains.
Now, every October, a festival to celebrate the traditions and the craft of eagle hunting on horseback occurs. During this festival up to 70 eagle hunters gather for the annual Kazakh Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia. And in 2014 participants as young as a 13yr old girl to an 85yr old man showed the intimate crowd the art of golden eagle hunting.
I had the pleasure of witnessing the synchronicity between man (and a girl) and eagle over the course of two entertaining days. Both hunter and eagle showing off the skills needed to once tip the scales between starvation and survival; now showing off the skills to still feed a family, but more to embrace the long standing heritage and show off the prowess of the art of hunting fox.
As I sat there and watched the two work in tandem, I couldn’t help but wonder how close the bond had to be between a wild golden eagle that was taken after birth from a nest and a hunter. Was it a skill that the two mastered together, or was it some pavlovian genetic instinct of the eagle to hunt, combined with man’s superior mind. Was the hunter using training methods of reward so the eagle would hunt?
My answer came to me after closely watching both men and bird during my time living with a Kazakh family in Western Mongolia. There, immersed in the ways of the past, watching the eagle live with the family, I spotted the first of many first tender moments of man and bird.
The bond did not spawn from the birds need to hunt, nor did it come from training, it came from creating a special, and unfathomable respect between a wild bird and a simple man. The man would command, the eagle would listen, instinctively hunt as it has done for centuries, then wait for the hunter to arrive with prey in its talons.
As seen in this photo. The hunter speaks to the Golden Eagle and places his hand on the eagles chest to pet her… and in response, the Golden Eagle nuzzles against the face of her partner and makes a guttural sound as if to respond to the man’s words.
That tender moment between an eagle and a man made this trip more than a visit to a festival, it made this trip an eye opening experience that two beings, normally hunting to survive as competitors, can learn that working together, producing a better life.
It almost made me sad to think that this relationship only lasts 6 to 10 years. After that, the female eagle is released back into the wild so she can breed and live out her life as a wild eagle should. Both hunter and eagle having lived a richer life for the friendship forged.
If you want to join me next year when we visit Mongolia and photograph eagle hunters, or want to witness the Naadam Festival in the Ancient city where Genghis Khan ruled Mongolia from, check out this link for more details on all the trips I am leading to Mongolia, http://www.kevinpepperphotography.com/workshops