KAZAKH EAGLE HUNTING

KAZAKH EAGLE HUNTING

Sayat (hunting with golden eagles) is regarded as a national sport in Kazakhstan even though it is practiced mainly by Kazakhs in Mongolia. For some Kazakhs it is more than a sport. One hunter, known as a berkutchi, told Reuters, eagle hunting is “our tradition, and we, Kazakhs, simple can’t live without it. They say it is a sport, but this is wrong. It is an art, it is in our veins. If we don’ preserve the art, we we’ll forget our ancestors,” Hunters traditionally have worn a long, richly embroidered chapan overcoat and malakhai fox fur hat when they hunted, often in the winter. [Source: Candice S. Millard, National Geographic, September 1999]

Nick Kirkpatrick wrote in the Washington Post: In parts of China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, using eagles to hunt is deeply rooted in a culture in which men worked with birds of prey as early as the 15th century. It’s a rite of passage for Kazakh boys in western Mongolia who learn the craft as early as 13. Passed down through generations, the tradition has a strict set of rules and practices. The hunts happen during winter, when teams of hunters chase their prey by horseback and release an eagle to make their kill. Hunting once provided furs and meat during harsh winters, but the tradition is battling a dwindling number of hunters. [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 10, 2015]

The tradition of eagle hunting is more than a thousand years old. Genghis Khan is believed to have engaged in the sport. Marco Polo described it. In the Mongol era, it is said, a fine eagle and good horse cost the same price and both lent prestige to their owner. The Kazakhs inherited the sport from their Turkic and Mongol ancestors and were practicing it when they emerged as an ethnic group in the 15th century. As one falconer told National Geographic, “When Kazakhs came into the world, they were eagle hunters.”

Eagle hunting was once associated with the elite. The khan, or leader, often owned several eagles as well as dozens of other birds of prey. Now it is practiced mostly as a display for tourists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. One of the few places it is kept alive as way of making a living is in the Kazakh-dominated areas of western Mongolia. There, hunters mainly catch foxes and marmots for their fur and meat. In Kazakhstan, eagle it is experiencing a rebirth. A sayat championship is held annually in Ekan Tau (150 kilometers from Almaty). It drew around 15 competitors in the 1990s.

Eagle hunting has disappeared from many places it was once commonly practiced and is no longer done out of necessity. It is now a sport and hobby practiced mostly in Mongolia and Kazakhstan and to a lesser degree in Kyrgyzstan in the Xinjiang region of western China, primarily by Kazakhs and some Kyrgyz. In recent years, it has made a come back and new people have taken it up/ Westerners tend to think of eagle hunting as a glorified form of falconry – and although hunting with hawks and falcons have many similarities, eagle hunters tend to look down upon falconry as a pastime for children and dilettantes.

Book” “Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs,” by Palani Mohan (Merrell, 2015]

Golden Eagles

Golden eagles are used by Kazakh eagle hunters. They are massive birds with wingspans up to two and half meters (eight feet). Some birds are so large their hunters strain to hold them. After independence in 1991, the golden eagle become the national symbol of Kazakhstan. A golden eagle is on the Kazakhstan flag.

The Kazakh eagle (golden eagle), according to Reuters, “is one of the world's fiercest, with a wingspan of 6.6 ft, razor-sharp talons and the ability to dive at the speed of an express train -- up to 190 mph.” Hunters prefer females because they are larger and regarded as more aggressive. Females weigh up to seven kilograms, which is a third heavier than males. It takes a great deal of strength to hold one of these large birds in your arm. When horses are on the move the eagles unfurl their wings for balance.

A quality golden eagle is worth $12,000 or more and can hunt for 30 years or more. Many hunters train and keep several birds in their lifetimes, generally releasing them to the wild after 10 years. Golden eagles are skilled hunters. In the nest of one large female, scientists found the remains of 27 foxes, ten gazelles, two eagle owls and one marmot. Golden eagles are struggling in the wild in some places because there is not enough wildlife for then to eat.

Golden eagles can be very dangerous. They occasionally become out of sorts and even dangerous to their owners. Golden eagles have known to vent their anger from a lost kill on a hunter or its horse. People have lost eyes.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters

Hunting takes place riding a specially trained horse, (called a "bercut”). To allow a rider to carry an eagle a special device (a “baldak”) is fitted onto the saddle to support the rider’s arm. A skilled pair, berkutchi (hunter) and bird, can typically catch 50 or 60 foxes, a dozen badgers, a couple of lynx and 4 or 5 wolves in a normal 4 month season, which starts in the late autumn [Source: advantour.com]

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: “When it snows on the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan, hunters saddle up and gallop off with eagles on their arms in search of prey. The men follow the animal tracks in the snow then release their giant eagles into the air to snatch up foxes and rabbits. "Hunting is my life," said Baurzhan Yeshmetov, a 62-year-old man in an embroidered velvet tunic, his eagle perched on his arm staring menacingly into the foggy hills. When he is not hunting he works as a taxi driver in Kazakhstan's financial center Almaty. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, December 6, 2009 \^/]

“Called berkutchi in Kazakh, professional eagle hunters number only about 50 in Kazakhstan -- a vast nation that has used its oil wealth to transform itself from a sleepy Soviet backwater into a modern consumer society. They often gather in the icy hills on the Kazakh border with China -- far from cities like Almaty, bustling with luxury cars and wifi cafes -- to determine whose eagle is the best.” \^/

Andrea DenHoed wrote in The New Yorker: “To hunt, the men take their eagles high into the mountains so that they can scan the valleys below for foxes and other animals, which the eagles fly down to catch.” After a “harsh trek: against the rugged, rocky landscape, the men’s weathered skin peeks through their fur coats and hats; the birds look dinosaur-like, with wild eyes, but sit calm and alert on the hunters’ arms...A hunter cradles his eagle gently, its talons curled toward the sky. “They love to be carried in such a way,” the hunter told Mohan. “It makes them feel loved and relaxes them, just like a baby.” [Source: Andrea DenHoed, The New Yorker, October 20, 2015]

The burkitshi are a dying breed. Mohan estimates that there are only fifty or sixty “true” eagle hunters left. A ninety-three-year-old hunter named Orazkhan Shuinshi told him that young people “want only to be inside, in the warm, and they keep their eagles just for festivals and treat them as pets.” He continued: “The people are lazy and that makes the eagles lazy. Eagles are wild fighting birds. They are not something to hang on the wall like a carpet.”

Eagle Hunting Methods

Sent out to hunt fawns, foxes, or other small animals, the eagle dives down on them and kills them. But often it is also capable of killing young wolves when they cannot negotiate the deep snow. Sometimes the eagles hunt in pairs, just as they would in the wild. . Eagles rarely fail to catch their prey, which it quickly kills, usually by breaking the neck in its powerful claws. [Source: advantour.com]

Eagles hunters mainly hunt hares, marmots and foxes. The hunter works on horseback. The primary object of the eagle is to catch the prey and grasp it long enough until the hunter shows up and clubs it to death. The eagles are given a piece of meat as a reward after each hunt. They are kept hooded when they are not hunting to keep them calm. During winter hunts, when temperatures can drop to forty below, a hooded eagle is swaddled in leather and carpets to keep warm.

Eagle hunters often pursue their sport in the mountains in the winter. They wear fox-fur hats, thick corduroy coat and leather mittens which the eagles rests on. They ride to the destinations on horseback and perch themselves on a hill or promontory so the eagle can scan the valley below for prey. When the eagle captures an animal the hunter races down on his horse to extract the animal so the precious fur is not damaged and the eagle is not hurt in the fight. Some hunters mamake a pretty good income using golden eagles to hunt foxes for their fur.

Describing a hunting eagle, Sebastian Allison of Reuters wrote, “High on a hillside overlooking the sweeping central Asian steppe, a horseman gazes down on the snow-dusted plain....At his signal a gigantic golden eagle glides effortlessly from the horseman’s arm towards the plain, circling once or twice as it soars higher...Movement on the steppe. A new urgency in the eagle’s flight. A tilt of wings as its seeks out the things that caught his eyes. The fox is in its sights. The hunt is on....The bird of prey swoops like lightning and with a tearing of its terrifying, razor-sharp talons the fox’s run is over.”

“You don’t really control the eagle,” Asher Svidensky, whose photographs of hunting with eagles were published by BBC. “You can try and make her hunt an animal — and then it’s a matter of nature. What will the eagle do? Will she make it? How will you get her back afterwards?” [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 10, 2015]

Trapping a Golden Eagle

The capture, training and keeping of eagles is a highly ritualised activity, and both the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz are experts. Most of the birds, which can have a life expectancy of 40 years, are caught young, hooded and placed in a cage with a perch that constantly sways while the berkutchi sings and chants to it, to imprint the sound of his voice and impress his personality on the bird. (Later on, the eagle is able to distinguish human voices and will obey only that of his master). The berkutchi feeds the bird himself. [Source: advantour.com]

Young eagles are captured when they are around two years old. To catch an eagle a hunter makes a trap that includes a handwoven net, seven sticks, three frozen hares and a raven. The net is hung from upright sticks. When the eagle swoops down to seize the bait and scare away the raven the net is dropped and the bird is trapped.

Andrea DenHoed wrote in The New Yorker: “The golden eagles that live in the high Altai mountains, in far-western Mongolia, build their nests in the crags of the area’s rugged peaks—there aren’t many trees. Hunters belonging to traditional nomadic clans from the country’s Khazakh minority climb up to these crevices to capture the birds at around four years old, which is old enough to know how to hunt but young enough to be pliable to human company and training. The eagles are domesticated, fed by hand, and will live with the hunters’ families for years. [Source: Andrea DenHoed, The New Yorker, October 20, 2015]

The eagle is tamed by bounding her ankles with leather strappings and tying her to a wooden block on a rawhide line. Every time she tries to fly away she flips upside down. After two days or so the eagle is exhausted and tame. She then can be approached and taught to return by the hunter.

Training a Golden Eagle

Training eagles takes a lot of time, (3-4 years), must be done by one person, and requires constant daily attention. When the eagle is almost an adult, the trainer shows it the hides and furs of the animals it must hunt so that it becomes used to the smell and characteristics of the prey. All of this is done with special commands. Training continues by dragging a fox fur behind a galloping horse. Not all eagles can be so trained, but those that do show intense loyalty. Although never tethered they always return after killing their prey. Skilled hunters even manage to get the bird to kill the prey while scarcely leaving a mark on its fur. [Source: advantour.com]

Eagles are kept on a pole called a tugir. Other essential tools include the gloves ( bialai), hood ( tomaga), and blanket to keep the bird warm ( khundag). Eagles are conditioned by regulated starvation. They taught to hunt by catching leather lures that sometimes contain pieces of meat and sometimes don’t. When they are better they are taught to hunt with a tethered fox.

In the United States, bald eagles have been trained to catch and retrieve. Occasionally they make appearances at half time shows at football games and other sporting events. They are trained with leather lures that sometimes contain pieces of beef and sometimes don’t. Practice consists of diving for the lure 160 times a day.

Kazakh Hunters and Their Eagles

Andrea DenHoed wrote in The New Yorker: “When the Australian-born photographer Palani Mohan began travelling to the Altais to document the traditions of these eagle-hunters, known as burkitshi, many of the men he met talked about loving the eagles like their own children. In an introduction to a new collection of his photos, Mohan writes, “It is the bond between hunter and eagle that fascinated me.” [Source: Andrea DenHoed, The New Yorker, October 20, 2015]

“Although eagles can live for thirty years, the hunters keep each one for only about ten years, then release it to live out its last years in the wild. The bird is taken far away, and the hunter sometimes has to hide, or wait for darkness, to keep it from following him home. When Mohan talked to Shuinshi, in 2012, the old man had released his last eagle the year before. “It was as if a member of my family had left,” he said. “I think about what that eagle is doing; if she’s safe, and whether she can find food and make a nest. Have her hunts been successful? Sometimes I dream about these things.”

Eagle Hunting Competitions

Eagle hunting competitions are held in Kazakhstan, western Mongolia and Xinjiang in western China. Describing a competition in the village of Issyk, outside Almaty in the Tien Shan mountains, Dmitry Solovyov of Reuters wrote: “The zigzagging fox make a last desperate dash across a snow-covered valley, trying to reach some rocks. Above is a golden eagle in ever narrowing circles...The red-furred fox then stops for a moment to look to see, too late, the eagle is hurtling towards it...Cheers burst out from the hundreds of people watching the hunt from a nearby slope as the judge announces the name of the winner...The hunter, on horseback, rides slowly over to his eagle whose talons have already ripped apart the fox, blood darkening the snow.”

The competition takes place in November and December when hunting has traditionally been done. It usually has two phases: catching hares and catching foxes. The eagles generally have no problem with hares snatching one by one as they are released from cages. The foxes are more difficult to catch. Sometimes it takes five eagle to catch a single fox. Many escape into the mountains. In some competition the hunters and their birds spread over an open area as the animals are released, with eagle and hunter scoring points with each animal they catch. The prizes include Kazakh handicrafts, diplomas and money.

Reuters reported in 2009: “During a Dec 5 tournament, a panel of juries watched with unsmiling faces from a hilltop as hunters, clad in fox-fur hats, unleashed straps and sent eagles into the air. Villagers prepared kebabs in open-air barbeque stands, loudspeakers blared folk songs, and tourists with binoculars and fluorescent outdoor gear stared in wonder.”

The winner of one competition in Issyk in the early 2000s was a 14-year-old girl named Makpal Abdrazakova, who defeated many men three and four times here age. She told Reuters, “My father taught me the art of eagle hunting, This is not only for men.

Eagle Hunting and Kazakh Culture

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: “Many in Kazakhstan see eagle hunting as a symbol of their nation's nomadic past and a throwback to an oft-romanticized era before these steppes turned into a geopolitical battleground between competing regional powers Russia and China. Two decades of economic growth that followed Kazakhstan's independence from Moscow's rule in 1991 have also created a generation of young Kazakhs whose search for a new identity has led them to look deeper into history. "In Soviet days all of this was forgotten because everyone had to believe in communism," said Dinara Serikbayeva who runs an eagle-hunting museum in the village of Nura. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, December 6, 2009 \^/]

“Speaking in the Soviet-built House of Culture building where functionaries once lectured villagers about a fast-approaching communist paradise, she said eagle hunting has turned into a symbol of this new quest for identity. "Kids once again think it's cool. It's an essential part of our nomadic ancestry and we are extremely proud of it." \^/

“Eagle hunting was largely banned during Soviet rule and the tradition would have disappeared altogether had it not been preserved by ethnic Kazakhs in China and Mongolia. More than a million Kazakhs took their skills to their graves during a Soviet-inflicted famine in the 1930s when Josef Stalin's forced collectivization campaign erased entire villages in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia. "Hunger, repression, collectivization. People had no time to worry about their eagles," said Yepemes Alimkhanov, a government official in charge of reviving national sporting activities. "It was a tragedy. But the tradition is coming back. Our sons and daughters have inherited it," he said. \^/

“The number of trained eagles in the village of Nura alone grew to 30 from just two since 1990. Indeed, everything in Nura seems to revolve around the practice. Even the village bus stop sports a large mosaic of a flying eagle. On the eve of a recent competition, families gathered inside their huts for a festive meal, serving the national dish of chewy meat and greasy dough. They talked about eagles. "This year of course no one has money, it's crisis time," said Bagdat Muptekekyzy, a tournament organizer. "It is hard. But we'll do anything to keep our hunters flying their eagles." \^/

There also efforts to keep Kazakh eagle hunting culture alive in China. An eagle hunting competition is held in the mountains of Qinghe County, Xinjiang, in northwestern China in late January. Kirkpatrick wrote in the Washington Post: The centuries-old tradition of hunting with eagles faces a dilemma: How to preserve a fading tradition in the 21st century? A community of hunters in mountains of Qinghe County in northwestern China is attempting to preserve the art. The community holds a festival where eagle hunters compete. [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 10, 2015]

The season for hunting with eagles is from October to February. The larger eagles malt during the summer months and do not fly. So during the tourist season demonstrations of the art are limited to showing the magnificent birds and flying smaller falcons.

Hunting Wolves with Golden Eagles in Central Asia

Kyrgyz and Kazakhs in Mongolia use golden eagles to hunt wolves. The eagle hunters usually go after foxes and other relatively small mammals but occasionally catch wolves. On a video about golden eagles hunting wolves, Hal Foster wrote in Tengri News: “ The video... has no script. It consists of scene after scene of eagles swooping down on wolves. The only sound is a throat singer’s guttural wailing. Two things in the footage astonished me. First, the wolves the eagles are hunting are full-grown, not cubs or teen-agers. [Source: Hal Foster, Tengri News, October 30, 2013]

“I know a golden eagle is a massive bird, but a full-grown wolf can weigh 100 pounds. Yet the eagles are killing the wolves, not just giving them a dusting-off. And unlike rabbits or most of the other prey that eagles go after, wolves have the equipment to fight back – nasty sets of teeth. Yet the eagles get the best of them anyway.For me the highlight of the video is a hefty wolf giving a golden eagle a really good fight – until a second eagle swoops down to help its mate. At which point, the wolf is a goner. The lesson is that an adult wolf has no chance against an adult golden eagle. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen the video.

The use of raptors in the hunting of wolves is primarily practised in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz people have traditionally used golden eagles, known as berkut, to hunt wolves. In the past, wolf pelts provided material for clothes crucial for the survival of the nomadic people in the severe colds. The eagles are used to immobilize the wolves by placing one foot at the back of the neck and another at the flank closer to the heart and lungs. Hunters usually only use eagles against pups, as an adult wolf can cripple in combat even a highly experienced eagle. Losing even one toe or talon will significantly lower the eagle's ability to tackle prey. Only a minor injury to the sinew of a foot may leave the eagle incapable of further hunting. As a wolf is capable of resisting even the best-trained bird, the falconer always keeps near, ready at the first opportunity to help the eagle. This is done carefully, as the wolf, sensing human presence, fights desperately to tear loose from the bird's talons, and the eagle can be severely injured. Because of the violent nature of their work, eagles trained to hunt wolves have shorter life spans. [Source: Wikipedia]

Using Eagles to Hunt Wolves

Darren Naish wrote in Tetrapod Zoology, “Eagles can be trained, of course, meaning that people can get them to do remarkable things that seem contrary to sensible behaviour: they can use them to hunt wolves, for example. The Kirghiz tribesmen of central Asia have long been known to use Golden eagles to catch wolves, and in fact Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324) wrote of “a great number of eagles, all trained to catch wolves, foxes, deer and wild goats”. This would have been some time in the 1270s, when Polo was in his twenties. John Love, in his 1989 book on eagles, wrote of a Kirghizian eagle that captured 14 wolves in a day. The precise role of these wolf-hunting eagles has been some somewhat uncertain, in the literature at least. [Source: Darren Naish, Tetrapod Zoology, Science Blogs, December 10, 2010 *=*]

“Some authors state that the eagle’s job is not to kill the wolf, but to hold it down until its trainer is able to arrive (on horseback) and dispatch the wolf with a knife. However, as is illustrated by the fact that Golden eagles can kill mammals bigger and heavier than wolves by a powerful strike directed at the back of the skull, a trained eagle would in fact be able to kill even an adult wolf if it approached quickly enough and struck the wolf, from behind, in the right place. Accordingly, other authors state that the eagle’s role is to kill – rather than just pin down – the wolf. Wikipedia’s entry on this subject states that “These eagles are so fast and powerful that they are capable of killing a fully grown wolf by diving at speed and striking the wolf on the back of the head or neck” [the adjacent photo shows the skin of a wolf, killed by an eagle, hanging on the outside of the house of a Kazakh hunter. Photo courtesy of S. Bodio]. Indeed, I know from film I’ve seen that the eagles certainly can and do kill the wolves during these hunts. *=*

“Some wolves prove particularly challenging quarry, however, and there is the tale of one that foiled the attempts of 11 eagles – killing each one – until it was finally dispatched thanks to the efforts of a twelfth eagle. Love (1989) intimated that wolf-hunting with eagles is all but extinct in modern times but, as you can see from this 2006 blog post by Steve Bodio (and from his 2003 book Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia), this is certainly not true. And if you’re sceptical of the existence of wolf-killing eagles (for reasons I cannot quite understand, some people are), there are a few graphic youtube videos: this is the most informative one (definitely NOT to be viewed by people with an overly sympathetic view of nature). *=*

“I said at the start that the idea of an eagle attacking a wolf might seem “contrary to sensible behaviour”. But, as people who know eagles will tell you, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t, or can’t, happen on occasion in the wild. Golden eagles can and do definitely kill coyotes and foxes, so the idea of one making a mistake, or just being bold enough, to try and take out a wolf is not far-fetched. It might not go to plan for the eagle*, but animals frequently make mistakes, and raptors are by nature remarkably bold and sure of their abilities. And remember that some Golden eagles have become confident, regular predators of large mammals: the individuals in New Mexico that took to killing domestic cattle killed at least six calves and injured 48 (yes, forty-eight) during 1987, 1988 and 1989** before they were captured and removed (Phillips et al. 1996). *=*

“What else might be possible? There are various anecdotes of eagles that were trained to kill horses and donkeys, and of course there are all those tales of eagles attacking people (adults as well as children). Steve Bodio told me about a case from Kazakhstan where a Golden eagle tried to take a Snow leopard, but the cat won. And there are also authenticated cases of eagles attacking planes and gliders...The idea of big eagles attacking people is typically regarded as fairytale nonsense. It isn’t.” *=*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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