Imagine waking up in a winter cabin in a remote mountain valley of the Altai Range in far western Mongolia several hours before dawn. Outside there is several feet of snow and the temperature is 40 below zero. A Kazakh nomadic herder wakes up and makes a fire to heat milk tea. After drinking a few cups, you dress and go outside to saddle a couple of short stocky Mongolian horses. The herder puts on a thick leather glove (bialeye) and picks up a golden eagle. Holding the eagle on his arm, he gets on his horse, rests his arm on a wooden crutch (bardak), and rides off for the hunt in the predawn darkness. You follow close behind as you ride from mountain to mountain, across barren steppes, looking for the elusive Corsac fox. From the tops of mountains you can see for miles. After several days of searching, today is your lucky day. After climbing several mountains, the hunter spots a fox over a mile away running across the valley and removes a leather cap (tomaga) from the eagle’s eyes. It quickly spots the fox and is released from its leash (ayak bau) for the kill. The golden eagle opens its 8 foot wings and descends rapidly to the valley below, topping 250 kilometers per hour (150 mph). Though it slows down before it reaches the fox, it quickly kills the small animal by applying of up to 700 lbs of pressure from its razor-sharp talons. The eagle hunter races down the mountain to the scene. One there, he holds out a piece of mutton and calls his bird. The eagle jumps back onto the arm, and the hunter retrieves the fox carcass. This rare and magical event takes place every winter in the rugged, isolated mountain passes of Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia; where eagle hunting is preserved like no other place on earth by a small enclave of Kazakhs.
Kazakh eagle hunters (called Berkutchi in Kazakh) capture wild Golden Eagle either from babies in the nest or adolescent eagles using a rope net called Torr to trap it. The Berkutchi prefer to use female eagles younger than 7. Female eagles are larger than males and more loyal. A female Golden Eagle can weigh up to 7 Kg (15 lbs) and have a wing span of 2.2 M (8 ft). Once it is captured, the hunter will starve it for a few days before hand feeding it. Once the eagle is used to eating out of its owners hands and familiar with his dogs and horses, training can begin. This consists of having the eagle chase fox furs pulled by string (shakhyru) either by hand or from the back of a horse. Once trained, eagles and hunters only hunt during winter when foxes, rabbits, and hares’ fur is thick and soft. Though Golden Eagles can live to be well over 30 years old, Kazakh eagle hunters will only keep an eagle for 10 years before releasing it into the wild.
Hunting with eagles is believed to be 1,000 years old; however falconry has been in practice in Central Asia for 6000 years. Falconry was not introduced into Europe and China until the Mongolian Conquest by Chinngis Khaan in the 13th Century. Chinngis had 1,000 hunting eagles, falcons, and gyrfalcons. Though falconry spread to other parts of the world, eagle hunting is only found in Central Asia among the descendents of a Mongolian Kingdom near the Aral Sea that became the Kazakhs. When the Russians conquered the region in the 1860s, they began suppressing eagle hunting and other militaristic customs of the warrior-nomads. Many Kazakhs fled into lawless border region of western China and Mongolia. With the rise of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, eagle hunting was suppressed entirely in the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. The isolated and largely ignored western region of Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia became the only place to continue the tradition. Though eagle hunting is undergoing a revival in the newly independent Kazakhstan, there are only 40 active eagle hunters, mostly displaying talents to tourists outside the largest city of Almaty, and a smaller number in Kyrgyzstan, compared at least 250 counted in a census of Bayan-Olgii and Hovd Aimags (province) of Mongolia. Hunting is currently illegal in Kazakh regions of China, though a few eagle hunters can be found.
Although only found in remote corners of Central Asia, tourism and nature documentaries have raised awareness of the truly unique spectacle. Regions that were closed to all foreigners 25 years ago can now be reached by commercial air flights from anywhere in Asia or Europe. There are festivals around Bayan-Olgii in late September and October, where hunters and eagles show off their skills. Also with the help of a guide, tourists can visit an eagle hunter out in the countryside. During the winter months, some tourists (who are willing to brave the cold and are experienced horse riders) can even see an actual live hunt!