By Hannah Reyes Morales
In western Mongolia, hunting with eagles is an important part of the local culture. Zamanbol, 14, with her partner. (Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times)
BAYAN-OLGII, Mongolia — When school is done on Fridays, Zamanbol heads back home, finishes her homework and does her chores as typical teenagers do anywhere. On Saturdays, she saddles up her horse, treks deep into snow-capped mountains and hunts wild beasts with a trusted partner: her trained bird of prey.
Zamanbol, 14, is an eagle huntress. A Kazakh nomad in the Altai region of Mongolia, she is part of a generation of nomadic youth who are embracing customs centuries old as they seek connections with their roots and the wild in a world being transformed by technology.
The young huntress, who goes to school in town during the week and returns to her nomadic family’s ger, or yurt, on the weekend, has been living among eagles her whole life. The demanding craft of eagle hunting was passed on to her by her grandfather, Matei. With him by her side, she and her eagle have even hunted wolves.
Her grandfather taught her all he knew of hunting with eagles — how to call to the bird in the sky, how to whisper to it soothingly when perched on her arm. When he died, she inherited his prized bird. “After my grandfather’s death, I wanted to continue his way,” Zamanbol said.
Just as she began learning the craft at a young age, the training of the birds starts soon after an eaglet is captured from the nest. The resulting relationship between hunter and eagle is close and spans years; some last more than a decade, with a few hunters even talking about the eagle as if it were their child. Hunters will often sing to their eagles to get them used to their voices.
Female eagles, larger and stronger than males, are used almost exclusively in the hunt. Once grown to about seven kilograms, the eagles ride with their hunters on horseback into the mountains, where they are released to scan the landscape for prey, typically foxes and rabbits. But wolves are the true prize, even if the hunters fear for their birds’ safety when they go in for the dangerous kill.
Eagle hunting almost vanished in the last century. It was kept alive by the Altai Kazakhs in western Mongolia in Bayan-Olgii Province, where at least 400 ethnic Kazakhs have formally registered as eagle hunters. The province is the only one in Mongolia that is majority Kazakh, and majority Muslim.
Now, for perhaps the first time in its history, the art, and its essential role in Altai Kazakh culture, is being shared with outsiders. Hunters come together for the Golden Eagle Festival, a two-day gathering. A 2016 documentary film about Aisholpan, a young eagle huntress who won the competition in 2014, helped bring the Altai Kazakh culture to international attention.
Just gathering the hunters together is a feat, since many are pastoral nomads. Many will arrive on horseback, clad in fur. During the festival, Soviet-era vehicles dot the steppe, with vendors selling tapestries, leather-bound books and intricate bottles. Children sit on the ground, playing games with sheep knuckle bones. The number of foreign tourists coming to the festival in October was more than 1,000, according to government officials.
In 2018, 120 eagle hunters took part. From the top of a mountain, the eagle is released as its hunter waits on horseback at the mountain’s base. The goal is to have the bird meet its hunter within a targeted area some 20 meters wide. To prod the eagle, the hunter holds aloft a piece of meat, and makes a loud cry. Just 18 eagles were up to the task. For each successful convergence, gasps and cheers of awe erupted across the steppe. The winning eagle is chosen after a second round, judged on how they hunt a carcass tied to a galloping horse.
Some scholars worry that the festival presents eagle hunting as performance rather than showing it in its cultural context, as a search for fur and food. But many hunters see the festival as a way to celebrate their heritage.
When Zamanbol rides out into the mountains to hunt, she often lets her friends come along, all moving confidently atop their horses over the rough terrain, bantering with each other at full gallop. In the selfies the girls post on Facebook, Zamanbol’s eagle appears with them like a peer. “Your eagle is lovely,” one of the comments reads.
Technology has widened gaps between generations across the world, and Bayan-Olgii is no exception. But eagle hunting, for the few who practice it, has been a bridge connecting Kazakh youth to their elders.
Aigerim, 14, has been drawn to her eagles since she was small. On a recent hunt with her father, Asker, their two eagles took flight from their arms, and then unexpectedly came together, seizing a fox. In his long history of hunting, Asker said this time of togetherness with his child and eagle stood out in his memory as a cherished moment.
For Zamanbol, her eagle embodies her grandparents, although the bird she hunts with today is not the one her grandfather gave her.
Out of custom and love, the eagles are eventually released back into the wild. Zamanbol was 13 when she let go her first eagle. Her family slaughtered a sheep for the occasion. She then tied a white ribbon around the eagle’s leg, went up to the mountains and bid farewell.
“I was sad,” Zamanbol said, “but I wanted her to be free.”
© 2018 New York Times News Service