Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia

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The Kazakh people are the descendants of Turkic, Mongolic and Indo-Iranian indigenous groups that populated a territory between Siberia and the Black Sea. As they were then, now, they are a nomadic people roaming the mountains and valleys of western Mongolia with their herds since the 19th century.

In this land where you feel time has forgotten, these nomadic Kazakh people that embrace traditions as old as the nomadic Khitans from Manchuria live, as they did, as they did when they 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.

But as with all ancient traditions I have had the pleasure of witnessing, the ancient art of eagle falconry is diminishing. Children, wanting more for themselves, move to more urban areas, attend school and leave their family traditions behind.

Now, in a display and celebrate ancient eagle falconry, 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.

I have had the pleasure of witnessing the synchronicity between man (and a girl) and eagle over the course of two entertaining on multiple occasions. 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.

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As I sat there and watched the two work in tandam, 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.

But the question that remained for me was, “How do the eagle hunters acquire an eagle?”

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. 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 trainable.

The female eagles are domesticated, fed by hand, and will live with the hunters’ families till the eagle is between ten and twelve years of age. Why a female eagle you ask? Female Golden eagles are larger. Their wing spans can reach eight feet and are far fiercer hunters.

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.

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An eagle will be released while on horse back and will scan the valley below for the target. It will then swoop down and capture its prey. Death for the prey almost instantly. The sheer force of the attack, the sharp claws with a strength that is unfathomable. A female golden eagle weighing about nine pounds with a seven to eight-foot wingspan can grip with an estimated strength of 450 pounds per square inch. (That figure varied up to 750 psi). A human’s hand strength in comparison is 20psi. (talk about a handshake that will put you to your knees!)

If you enjoy visiting new lands, virtually untouched by tourism, this is the place for you.

If you like photographing birds of prey in action, this is definitely a trip for you.

If you like capturing culture of a people that will invite you into their homes, share their food, and allow you to take photos, you will want to visit here.

If you want to take photos of something most people will only ever read about, or watch on National Geographic, this is a place for you.

I visit this location at least once every year with groups that want to experience something unique.

But we just do not go to see the eagle festival. I take our groups into the cities along our travels and immerse them in the different cultures. I take them to see gorgeous landscapes… but above all else, is the time my groups spend with the families in the foothills of the Altai Mountains.

For a few days every trip we live with a family that are eagle hunters. It gives you the chance to have four private photo shoots with up to four eagle hunters climbing in and around the Altai mountains with the eagles.

We take portraits, we photograph the eagles in flight and we photograph the eagle hunters riding with their eagles… this is an up close and person photography session that people just visiting for the festival will not get the opportunity to experience.

Please see the three trips that Northof49Photography will be leading in 2017 and 2018

2017 Naadam and Golden Eagle Hunters … http://www.kevinpepperphotography.com/2017-mongolia-workshop-with-randy-wilson

2018 Golden Eagle Festival … http://www.kevinpepperphotography.com/2018-mongolia-photography-workshop

Only two spots left on this trip



Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: www.kevinpepperphotography.com