Our Guide To Hunting With Golden Eagles Mongolia
Western Mongolia is dominated by the Altai Mountains physically and culturally and the Altai Mountains have functioned for thousands of years as a homeland for the nomadic cultures of Eurasia including the Kazakhs – Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority group representing 3-4% of Mongolia’s population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3.2 million people – 2020 Census).
Hunting with eagles is a form of falconry traditionally found throughout the Eurasian steppe. A Kazakh who hunts using eagles is known as a ‘berkutchi’ and hunting with eagles is still practised by a percentage of Mongol Kazakhs in western Mongolia. In 2011 UNESCO added Kazakh eagle hunting to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as an example of living human heritage.
Language and religion are just two markers that make the Kazakhs of Mongolia culturally and ethnically different from Mongolians. Kazakh is the dominant language in Bayan Ulgii although Mongolian is the official language of government and business. Local schools teach in either Mongolian or Kazakh. The Kazakh population is predominantly Muslim (whereas the rest of Mongolia is predominantly a Buddhist country).
Not all of Mongolia’s Kazakh population are eagle hunters. Mongolia’s Kazakh population are divided between herders and those based in the rural towns including working in service industries such as teaching. Of those that are herders, approximately 300 are eagle hunters (predominantly located in Bayan Ulgii Aimag). Amid arid yet strikingly beautiful landscapes these eagle hunters have a way of life that has been shaped by history, geography, and political change.
The Eagles, Eagle Hunting & Ethics
Experiencing the way of life of Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters and how they hunt has become a major focus of the tourism industry in Mongolia – especially for those looking for an authentic experience. However, over the years, tourism to western Mongolia has increased and so has the impact that tourism has on the land, the culture, and the way of life.
The skill and knowledge required for capturing, training, and hunting with an eagle are seen as a long-standing cultural tradition unique to Kazakh people – a tradition that gets passed down through the generations to help the community, the Kazakh people, and for the sense of identity it gives.
But as tourism to the area has increased, so the relationship between some of the hunters and their eagles has also changed threatening the eagles and the traditions themselves. What are the ethics of the relationship between tourism and hunting with eagles in Mongolia? Read more here.
Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are used by Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters for their agility and speed and because they have very acute eyesight for spotting prey in the vastness of the (often snow-covered) terrain. These magnificent birds of prey – one of the largest eagles and named as berkuts by the Kazakh hunters – are named for their golden coloured nape feathers.
The landscapes of western Mongolia fit perfectly with the way golden eagles naturally hunt – either by soaring above the landscapes scanning the ground for prey or by perching on a rock and scanning the ground below for movement. Female golden eagles are preferred as they are stronger and more aggressive than their male counterparts. Golden eagles are predators with an extremely strong grip with sharp talons (it is the talons that kill the prey) and are adapted to winter hunting for hare and fox.
Kazakh eagle hunters traditionally use ‘jealousy traps’ for capturing eagles between the ages of 2-3 years old (when it is considered a subadult – after they have fledged but before they’ve become mature) when the birds are passing through the Altai region during their migration. Not all eagle hunters have the time to capture their own eagle and there is a tradition within the Kazakh community of men with both the time and skill trapping eagles and selling them on to other hunters who may not have the time or means to trap their own. However, a number of hunters do capture their eagles as chicks (known to the Kazakh hunters as eyasses) directly from the nest.
Eagles are traditionally released back into the wild after a year to ten years so they can breed and raise young. Eagles are typically released in the summer when they are fat and there is prey for them to find. When released, the hunter places a piece of white cloth on the underside of the wing to identify the eagle. An eagle which is considered a really good hunter is given the title of kiran. This title still applies once the eagle is released back into the wild and kirans will also have this piece of cloth as an identifier.
When in the ownership of a hunter, most eagles wear a hood – known as a tomaga. The purpose of the hood is to calm an eagle by covering its eyes. This hood is typically made from leather and designed to fit the head of each bird, so it blinds the bird and cannot be shaken off. The hood is released for hunting.
In the summer months, the birds are not used for hunting. From spring, the birds are ‘rested’ – taken up again by the hunters from around late August to condition them for the winter hunting season. Traditionally, a toghorr (three-legged stool) was used as an eagle perch although you will now also see rocks and even car tyres used as well. Eagles are fed and in every hunter’s kitchen is a sapdiak – an almond-shaped wooden bowl used specifically for hand-feeding an eagle.
The relationship between Kazakh eagle hunters and their eagles is a partnership not a relationship of dominance. The Kazakh eagle hunters have a respectful yet practical approach to their eagles. They have a close connection with their eagles and for the time they belong to the hunter, they are virtually family members although it is sometimes hard for outsiders to recognise this.
It takes understanding and patience to capture and train an eagle and this is one reason why not all Kazakh herders become ‘berkutchi’ – because they do not have the time. There is also a tradition within the Kazakh community of men with both the time and skill trapping eagles and selling them on to other hunters who may not have the time or means to trap their own.
Hunting with eagles is primarily a source not of meat, but of fur. The main prey species are foxes and of course, their winter fur is more valuable. That’s why the hunting only takes place from early November through to February. Of course, there are now more efficient ways of hunting such as with rifles but other reasons for the Kazakhs hunting with eagles is the tradition, the freedom, and the sense of identity it gives.
Hunting takes place 3-4 days a week throughout the winter season and requires a minimum of two people – one to hold and release the eagle and a second to flush out the prey. As long as the eagle has a height advantage, there is a strong chance it will catch the prey. The prey goes to the person who helped to find and flush it out.
- If you are thinking of joining in on a hunt, consider your level of fitness as it is a very physical activity. Most tour companies will provide a vehicle and for those concerned about the cold or riding a horse, you can observe a hunt from the vehicle using binoculars.
- Of course, you can join the hunters on horseback but you must be a confident rider and happy with heights. The ground will be a mix of uneven rock and loose shale and the horse will at times slip. It will also be unbelievably cold. In addition, once the eagle has captured its prey, the descent to the kill site by the hunters is rapid – taken at a gallop to make sure the eagle doesn’t damage the pelt. Also, take into consideration that you may not see much of the actual hunt once the eagle is released.
- Alternatively, you can walk to the high spot where the eagle hunters will gather to observe their surroundings. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the spot they will release the eagle from. It all depends on where the prey is flushed from.
Our Hunting With Eagles Experiences
Meet Some Of The Mongol Kazakh Eagle Hunters We Work In Partnership With
We arranged for filmmaker Sam Potter to live alongside and document the lives of Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters that we work in long-term local community partnership with. This is his film:
Aibolat & Baibolat
An Overview To The Culture Of Mongol Kazakh Eagle Hunters
Herders do not migrate randomly. Each move is a careful decision which includes reviewing the quality of the pasture. Herders continuously micro-adapt and each herding family is different on how often and when they move.
Not all of Mongolia’s Kazakhs are herders. But those that are herders, including those with eagles, complete seasonal migrations with their livestock throughout the year – in search of fresh pasture for their animals. For some families, this might be two times a year and for some, it might be 3-4 times a year or more. It might change year to year depending on the quality of the pasture.
- The winter season is typically spent in valleys protected by mountains in adobe-style homes with the livestock in corrals – previously built and repaired prior to each winter.
- The spring and summer pasture is at a higher elevation, typically somewhere where glacial melt provides a fresh water source.
- Those that move to an autumn pasture typically move to the open steppe.
A percentage of Mongolia’s Kazakh herders complete a spring migration to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.
The spring migration can take place between the months of February to April. However, February (although the coldest month) is often chosen as it allows the animals to move before they give birth in March as the young wouldn’t survive such a migration. Even so, the spring migration can be the toughest as the livestock will be thin after a long winter.
The spring migration covers a distance of approximately 150km over a period of 5 to 6 days. The traditional herding way of life combines with elements of modern settled life. These elements are often used to help improve their lives – for example, the use of mobile phones and ownership of a vehicle. For the spring migration a majority of families use a truck to transport the older generation or women and children as well as possessions leaving often just the men to look after the animals on the migration.
The Nauryz Festival is celebrated by Kazakhs throughout Mongolia. Nauryz translates into ‘new day’ – March 21 is officially recognized as International Nauryz Day, though the holiday itself is celebrated between March 19 and 22, depending on calendars and vernal equinox calculations. Nauryz is considered the first day of the spring equinox and is a celebration not only about spring but about renewal as well. Nauryz is not only a state holiday for Kazakhs in Mongolia, but it is also celebrated in all countries of Central Asia, as well as Georgia, India, Iran, China, Turkey and others. In 2009, Nauryz was included in the (bit of a mouthful) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Learn more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/nauryz-festival-mongolia/
Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals are community-developed cultural festivals and focus on promoting Kazakh culture and the tradition of hunting with eagles. Although the most well-known ones take place in the autumn in Bayan Ulgii Province in western Mongolia, there are other events taking place throughout the year such as during Nauryz – the celebration of spring that takes place in March throughout central Asia.
Typically the festivals are sponsored by local tour companies but run in partnership with the Mongolian Eagle Hunter’s Association. For the participants, the festivals are a social occasion and a competition – for prize money. The main focus of the festivals is the working relationship of the hunter with their eagle and the main competition focuses on the speed, agility and accuracy of the ‘berkut’ (the female Golden Eagle) to come to the lure which is held by the hunter. As an observer, the festivals will provide you with a wealth of cultural experience as you mix in the company of small-town folk, herders and the Kazakh hunters.
Learn more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolias-eagle-festivals/
You’ve probably heard of Aisholpan (the main star of the popular 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress). However, you may not have heard of Aikerim or Ahkelik, or Zamanbol. They are also young eagle huntresses and train and hunt with their eagles for the sense of freedom it provides as well the connection with the traditions and elders of their culture.
We are proud that we work with a number of eagle huntresses and their families. At EL all of our trip assistants (guides) are Mongolian women and we believe that seeing women in independent positions is surely one of the best ways to inspire younger girls within the rural communities of Mongolia – including the eagle huntresses – and to let them understand that they can do the same. What I love is that eagle hunting has allowed both these young women to become courageous whilst at the same time teaching them the strength of perseverance as they continue to overcome obstacles such as centuries of tradition.
However, although they are eagle hunters who like to meet people from other cultures and countries and therefore the subject of many media images, they are also young women who enjoy going to school, posting selfies on social media, and meeting with their friends. We are visitors and whether we get to meet them will depend on their schooling – schooling is important to their future and we like to support rather than impose so never stipulate that the eagle huntresses must be at home. But, you’ll be part of their household – going hunting with their father or brother or uncle – and therefore part of their daily life.
Learn more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/the-eagle-huntress-mongolia/
As Kazakh culture dictates, they are warm and generous hosts and as the guest of a family, you shouldn’t refuse anything too forcibly.
Kazakh cooking is based on boiling horse and mutton although Mongolian dishes are frequently found as well and in the summer months, dairy products also feature. If you’re visiting a Kazakh family you will probably get to try the beshbarmak – a dish consisting of boiled horse or mutton. This is is one of the most popular Kazakh dishes and is also called ‘five fingers’ because of the way it is eaten – using your hands. Traditionally, the chunks of boiled meat are cut and served by the host in order of the guests’ importance. Another favourite Kazakh dish that you will probably be invited to try is kazy a traditional sausage made of fattened horsemeat – often part of a celebratory meal.
During festivals or in the market of Ulgii you will also find shashlik – kebabs cooked over a charcoal fire, typically made from lamb or beef.
There are year-round domestic flights to Ulgii (the provincial capital of Bayan Ulgii Province) from Ulaanbaatar with both Hunnu Air and AeroMongolia. There are no daily flights but there’s a good service. It might feel a little like having arrived at the end of the road but Ulgii itself is worth spending time in – especially time spent exploring the black market.
If there are no available flights to Ulgii then consider flying into Khovd – the provinical capital of Khovd aimag – and transferring the approximate 220km by road to Ulgii. Most of the road is now asphalt and there are public buses available for those who don’t arrange a transfer.
In addition, there are daily bus services connecting Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Ulgii. Buses depart from the Dragon Center bus terminal in Ulaanbaatar.
Although carbon offsets are far from imperfect and not the whole answer, they make a difference. Emissions per kilometer for domestic flights are always much higher because such a large proportion of the flight is spent taking off and landing. With this in mind, as a company, we calculate the offset for all domestic flights used by our guests and EL team and pay the offset to buy Plan Vivo Foundation carbon certificates which are used to support the Plan Vivo Mongolian Nomad Project – working in partnership with the Mongolian Society of Range Management.
If you would like to offset the emissions from your Mongolian domestic flight into a Mongolian Nomad Project then use this link: