Nestled in the depths of Mongolia’s Altai mountain region, the Kazakh’s employ the use of golden eagles in their hunting practices. The Kazakh’s themselves are clad in animal skins in an attempt to ward off the sub-zero temperatures. I am unsure whether I am merely unacclimatised, or whether I lack the necessary grit to withstand the conditions, but I find the bitter cold bone-chilling.
It is the bond between the hunter and the eagle that fascinated me beyond anything else. At first glance, the golden eagles are terrifying. With their legs shackled and their eyes covered by masks so as to not illicit an attack on foreigners, they appear to be highly aggressive. Their feathers are a peppered mix of gold, brown, and black, with their beak shaped like a carving tool. I can only imagine how effective they would be at hunting. But despite their menacing demeanor, they perch on the arms of the Kazakh’s quite comfortably, awaiting instruction. The dauntless eagles construct their nests in the crags of the Altai mountains where the peaks and troughs make it almost impossible to grow trees. Hunters belonging to traditional nomadic clans from the country’s Kazakh minority hike up to these crevices to capture the birds when they are about four years old. I am told that capturing the birds at this age is intentional as they are old enough to know how to hunt, whilst still being at an age that makes them compliant to human company and training. Upon capture, the eagles are domesticated, being hand-fed and living in the company of the hunters’ families for numerous years.
Interestingly, only female eagles are used due to their eight-foot wingspan size, and fierce hunting capability. Also, even though the eagles can live for thirty years, the hunters will only keep them for ten years before they release them to live their final years in the wild. To release them, the hunter takes the bird a far distance from camp, sometimes having to hide, or wait in darkness, to prevent the bird from following them home.
The fearlessness of the Kazakh people never ceased to amaze me. The way in which they handled such alarming creatures was awe-inspiring, and something that never became comfortable for me, no matter how long I spent in this community.
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