Gold Rush: The Changing World of Kazakh Eagle Falconry

Tucked away in the northeastern corner of central Asia, in one of the most inhospitable regions of the world, an ancient practice, which has seen the rise and fall of several empires, outliving each of them, now faces extinction. This centuries-old tradition, practiced by the indigenous Altai-Kazakhs, is eagle hunting. No, not hunting for eagles, hunting with them. Believed to have originated in central Asia as early as the 1st century AD, eagle hunting has continued to be practiced sparsely throughout the continent. However, its last stronghold exists in a small region of Northern Mongolia, Bayan-Ulgii. The climate here can only be described as brutal. Vast, open swaths of prairie stretch for hundreds of miles, interrupted only by the jagged mountain ranges that envelop the region. Annual rainfall in this remote region of the world amounts to fewer than five inches (NEAR, 2017). The sun beats down mercilessly on the steppe during the day, with temperatures nearing 32 °C (90°F) and the only respite comes at night when temperatures plummet to thirty below zero (-25°F). This harsh and unforgiving land is one of the last places on Earth where nomadic shepherds still tend their flocks of sheep and goats on the steppe, where people still dwell in round tents covered in skin and felt, and where time seems to have stood still, allowing for the continuation of this centuries-old sport. Yet the rolling tide of changes accompanying the 21st century may just be the undoing of this age-old tradition. Today, Kazakh eagle hunting faces a myriad of threats that range from the disappearance of the Golden eagle’s prey (an effect of rapid desertification), to the loss of natural habitat in the wake of agriculture. Yet the greatest peril now facing this disappearing tradition may come from a singularly unexpected source. In recent years, this custom has garnered sensational media coverage including, notably, a well-received documentary about a young huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, narrated by film-star Daisy Ridley. This, in tandem with the advent of the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, has brought thousands of eager tourists from all corners of the world to witness the power of the birds and the skill of their hunters firsthand. Now, in a cruel twist of irony, this international attention, which the tradition has long-deserved, may just be the sacred ritual’s undoing, as increased tourism has brought new pressures to the region which threaten the core values of the hunt.

The use of Golden eagles in falconry remains a compelling piece of imagery and it is easy to see why. The Golden eagle has long inspired both reverence and fear among the hunters and the sight of the hunter on horseback, draped in thick furs, galloping across an endless sea of rolling prairie with an enormous bird of prey perched on his arm conjures up powerful themes of wildness and freedom that are central to us all. But for the Altai-Kazakh’s of the Bayan-Uglii prefecture of Mongolia, it represents all of that and more. To them, it is an inseverable source of identity; an enduring symbol of a sacred partnership between man and beast which has stood the test of time. The Altai-Kazakhs, or Altaic Kazakhs, are a primarily pastoral people and for millennia, oral tradition has kept their culture alive. When the rise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent redrawing of borders drove them from their homeland in Kazakhstan, thousands of the nomadic people sought refuge in neighboring Mongolia, a country which shares many aspects of their cultural identity. (Barcus,2004). After the crumble of the Bolshevik experiment in 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev, former president of Kazakhstan, called upon the people to return to their traditional homeland. As they would quickly discover though, many of the traditional practices that surround their nomadic lifestyle, including eagle falconry, no longer had a place in Nazarbayev’s quickly-changing, hyper-modern country. Rather than abandon their ancient customs, many returned to Mongolia, where their unique form of falconry has continued to be passed down from generation to generation.

Eagle Hunting is not for the faint of heart. It begins with a treacherous climb up the sheer vertical cliff faces of the looming mountainsides where Golden eagles prefer to nest. The young birds are snatched from the nest as soon as they are fledged and under the tutelage of an experienced hunter, are taught to fly to and from a gloved a hand. Upon fledging age, the birds are nearly full grown, and are already formidable creatures. With a wingspan exceeding seven feet, and an impressive arsenal of two-inch-long talons capable of clamping down with a bone-crushing four hundred and fifty pounds per square inch, even young eagles pose a considerable hazard (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2017). The hunters prefer to take female birds as they are larger and more powerful than males, able to take down prey as large as deer or even wolves. The immense power and fierce independence of these animals is not lost on the hunters. The process of training a young bird can be a slow, monotonous one, requiring a great deal of patience and understanding. Not only must the hunter teach the young, inexperienced bird to hunt, they must also establish a level of trust with the animal that is strong enough to encourage it to return to their hand when the hunt is over. Trust between the pair is achieved through countless hours spent repeatedly luring the eagle with a pelt tied to a string and rewarding it with food upon a successful flight. As is often the case amongst seasoned hunters, the bird is treated like a member of the family and is cared for around the clock with the same level of attentiveness the hunter would show to his own children. Over the course of several years, the hunter and the bird form an indelible bond, and this bond is what ensure the success of the hunt.

The idea of partnership rather than ownership is an intrinsic element in traditional Kazakh-falconry. To have a bird die under your care, be it from malnourishment, mistreatment or otherwise, is unthinkable, and the hunters go to great lengths to ensure the bird is well-housed and fed. Tradition dictates that the bird be kept for no more than five seasons before it is released back into the wild (Ebner, 2016). The day when the eagle must be returned to the wild can be a bittersweet moment for the hunter and his family, who have come to form strong familial ties with the animal. Occasionally, the eagles also seem reluctant to part ways, occasionally returning to the hunter’s home in the following seasons. But the bird is never recaptured, and the hunter will discourage it from returning, believing it to be important that the eagle return to the wild, thus completing the traditional cycle. For countless thousands of years, the delicate balance between capture and release has been sustainably maintained. But all of that may change in the coming years, as eagle hunting becomes increasingly de-contextualized following the rise in international attention.

The Bayan-Ulgii Eagle Festival, a tradition in its own right, has carried on without fail for the past sixteen years. A 2016 observational/interview study performed by Nolan Ebner explains, “The Golden Eagle Festival was conceived as heritage tourism attraction in 1998 and the first festival was held in October of 2000 just outside the province capital, Ulgii” (Ebner, 2016). The festival is a chance for eagle hunters to showcase not only the prowess of their birds, but their own skill in training and raising the animal. A series of competitive events is held to test the bond between the eagle and its handler, one of the most popular of which requires the hunter to wait at the base of a mountain for the eagle to be released, whereupon he must call the bird to his hand and be scored for time and efficiency. The festival is designed to celebrate the Golden eagle and its central role in Kazakh culture. Recently however, longstanding cultural values surrounding the festival have given way to a less-than reverent practices. Hunters now keep their birds for as many as ten years, long past their prime breeding age. Even more alarming, many of the hunters no longer make that critical first step up the cliff face to capture their own bird, electing instead to purchase one from poachers who trap adult birds with nets and sell them to younger, inexperienced hunters. The same study by Ebner found that of the 10 eagle hunters he interviewed, “…5/10 bought their eagles, and the other 5/10 took the eagle from the nest either themselves or a relative of theirs completed the task for them” (Ebner, 2016). Ebner was not the first to take notice of these changes. A 2012 observational study performed by Takuya Soma in Bayan-Ulgii found that many hunters had come to favor traps and guns over eagles as their preferred method of collecting fur, keeping eagles merely as pets. An especially alarming observation was made in the remote region of Sagsai, where Soma found that though there were 24 eagle hunters living there, “only between two and four of them actually did any hunting” (Soma, 2012).

It is easy to see the deterioration of traditional methods and to place the blame on the hunters, but that would be a massive oversight. In a country where a staggering 29.6% of the population lives below the poverty line, (World Bank Group, 2017) an event like the eagle festival offers an irresistible opportunity for financial gain to those struggling to eke out a living. There is real money to be made at the eagle festival. Aside from the large cash prizes awarded to the winners of the competitions, there is a small fortune to be made from the flocks of captivated tourists, who are all-too-willing to shell out in order to get their picture taken with a Golden eagle. The incentive for hunters to buy a bird and use it to profit from the tourists is high and continues to be an issue of contention between traditional hunters and the tourism sector in Mongolia. In one of Ebner’s interviews with a representative from the tourism sector, the representative explains, “Right now, if someone starts to go eagle hunting, it’s not for the tradition. It’s for the money part of it…The real hunters are far away from the festival [in places like Altai]. They don’t come [to the eagle festivals], they keep the tradition” (Ebner, 2016). However, for many of the foreigners who visit Mongolia, the festival is their only glimpse into the world of Kazakh falconry, and only those willing or able to make the long trek to the outskirts of Bayan-Ulgii get to see the practice in its pure form. Unsurprisingly, that is not the case for the majority of visitors, and so the de-contextualization of the practice remains a pervasive issue.

For some, the dire state of affairs surrounding Kazakh eagle falconry begs the question: So what? Beyond the aesthetic and imaginative appeal of the practice, which itself is worthy of protecting, there remains a question of practicality. There are some who might wonder why this sport deserves any special considerations, as that is exactly what it is: sport. The Altai-Kazakh’s do not rely on eagle-hunting to put food on their tables, instead subsisting almost entirely off their livestock. Eagle-hunting is, and always has been, a means to acquire fur. However, that is not to say that it is without its practical value. The furs garnered from successful hunts have long protected the people from the bitter climate of the steppe, as well as adorned their gers (or yurts) as a symbol of status within the tribe. 

The area of species conservation offers perhaps the greatest utilitarian application. Falconry remains one of the surest ways to ensure the survival of many raptor species. “Hacking”, as it has come to be called in western settings, has become a popular method of conservation employed by scientists. The term “hacking” comes from Elizabethan-era of falconers, who would place young falcons in a type of wagon called a hack wagon, but the practice itself has been around for centuries. The process involves the construction of a “hack box” or a surrogate nest, and then hand-rearing lab-raised birds before releasing them into the wild. This method has been used to great success in places like Yellowstone National Park where, by 1970, Peregrine falcons had all but disappeared. The ambitious reintroduction program there has been a wild success. Anne Hay, a volunteer for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (in Cody, Wyoming) works with The Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience and reported on the success of the program in a 2017 article, writing, “With the use of hacking, the Peregrine has returned to Yellowstone, and by 2014 there were 30 known pairs of breeding falcons in the park” (Hay, 2017). Hay also notes the great success hacking has yielded with other species such as the Aplomado Falcons, Gyrfalcons, Osprey, Bald Eagles, Kites, some species of owls, and other birds. In 2016, The Golden eagle was listed as “least concern” on the IUCN’s red list (BirdLifeInternational, 2016). However, populations have been shown to be declining in countries like Mongolia, where increasing climate pressure and land development continues to threaten the stability of their numbers. As Ebner states, “The environmental effects of climate change, paired with the land cover and land use change (as is the case in Mongolian and Bayan-Ulgii with current rates of desertification alongside extraneous road cover), signifies the threat of decreasing range for both predator and prey” (Ebner, 2016). As the effects of climate change become increasingly severe, Golden eagles may experience drastic reduction in numbers. The Altai-Kazakhs, who have successfully hand-reared the birds for centuries, represent a key ally in the field of conservation, which in future years will inevitably become a greater concern as desertification continues to spread across Mongolia. The presence of top predators such as Golden eagles is obviously of vital importance, as they provide both ecological and economic services. It is of paramount importance that the traditional methods of Kazkh-falconry, which have long kept Golden eagles there in abundance, remain unchanged.

The Altai-Kazakhs of Bayan-Ulgii have spent thousands of years forging a deep connection to the land around them. Out of the bare rock and rolling fields of grass, they have formed a critical relationship with one of the most fearsome creatures on Earth. For so many generations have they lived and hunted alongside the Golden eagle, and so closely have they guarded that knowledge, that it has become an intrinsic element of their culture and identity. Local eagle masters have created their own indigenous terms for the anatomy of the Golden eagle, even giving individual names to each of their talons, such as Teguerin, which translates to “onslaught”, and Sugum, meaning “oppression” (Soma 2016). Their intimate relationship with their natural environment is reflected in their affections for the eagles. But in an ever-changing, ever-warming world, their traditions face an increasing risk of disappearing altogether. Scientific research on Kazakh eagle falconry and its potential benefits as well as its shortcomings is in troublingly short supply. A similar problem exists with countless other forms of traditional ecological knowledge throughout the world. As a community, scientists, along with much of the western world, have long condemned Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to obscurity, placing greater stock in western sciences. However, increasingly, this is becoming a mistake that we as a planet cannot afford to make. TEK and its teachings are an endless sea of untapped potential, and in coming decades, may prove to be the most valuable asset in our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. Both Ebner and Soma note the lack of research surrounding Kazakh eagle falconry in their studies and suggest avenues for future projects. However, the traditional ways are quickly becoming a thing of the past, as fewer and fewer young people in Bayan-Ulgii are taking up the family trade of falconry, favoring life in the growing cities. What does this mean for the world of Kazakh eagle falconry, which has endured for so long? Will the 21st century see the loss of this age-old tradition? Today, the future of eagle falconry remains dangerously uncertain and the continuation of its traditional methods lies at a perilous crossroads. However, the dedication of just a handful of hunters and the fierce independence of the people is a continuing source of hope for the survival of both the eagles and the ancient ways.

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Jesse Yale: “I am a fourth-year undergrad student at ESF studying Environmental Biology. The piece I submitted was a critical essay written for EWP 190. However, what started out as merely an assignment for a class, soon turned into something of far-greater importance to me. My inspiration for this work was the product of a great deal of time spent reflecting on a few, particularly thought-provoking words by New York-based writer, Scott Korb. In a short reading assignment given to us at the beginning of the semester entitled The Soul-Crushing Student Essay, Scott Korb remarks on the value that our “queer devotions, frustrations, little triumphs, and large peculiarities” impart on our writing. These words struck a chord with me, and encouraged me to look within myself and “unearth” my own queer devotions and peculiarities. Both birds and Indigenous cultures have been a source of lifelong fascination for me, and the opportunity to merge these two devotions was simply too great to pass up. Having been born in Kazakhstan, a country which, though in a state of rapid modernization, enjoys a storied history of close ties to the natural world, this essay quickly became a source of great personal fulfillment and enjoyment. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it. Cheers.”


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