Hunting With Golden Eagles Mongolia

Our Cultural Guide To The Traditions Of Hunting With Golden Eagles In  Mongolia

“They have an extraordinary bond with the golden eagle, which to them represents the wind, the open space, the isolation and the freedom found at the edge of the world.”

Australian photographer Palani Mohan

Hunting with golden eagles Mongolia

Image: Kazakh eagle hunter Bashakhan, EL guest Nick Fletcher

Western Mongolia is dominated by the Altai Mountains both physically and culturally. For thousands of years, these mountains have served as the homeland for the nomadic cultures of Eurasia, including the Kazakhs, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority group, representing 3-4% of the country’s population, which totals just over 3.4 million.

The Kazakhs of Mongolia are culturally and ethnically distinct from the Mongolians, with language and religion being two key differentiators. Kazakh is the dominant language in Bayan Ulgii, Mongolia’s westernmost province and home to the majority of Mongolia’s Kazakh population, while Mongolian is the official language of government and business. Local schools offer instruction in either Mongolian or Kazakh. The Kazakh population is predominantly Muslim, contrasting with the rest of Mongolia, which is predominantly Buddhist.

Eagle hunting is a traditional form of falconry found throughout the Eurasian steppe, with approximately 250-300 eagle hunters in Mongolia, mainly in Bayan Ulgii Aimag. A Kazakh who hunts using eagles is known as a ‘berkutchi,’ and this practice continues among some Mongol Kazakhs in western Mongolia. In 2021, UNESCO added falconry to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognising it as an example of living human heritage.

However, it is crucial to remember that not all of Mongolia’s Kazakh population are eagle hunters. The Mongol Kazakh community, shaped by history, geography, and political change, is richly diverse. It includes herders and those settled in rural towns who often engage in service industries such as education. To focus solely on the lifestyle of eagle hunters is to overlook a significant aspect of the local culture and population. Find out more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/the-mongol-kazakhs-of-western-mongolia/

The Eagles, Eagle Hunting, and Ethical Considerations

“I feel like people paint a picture of indigenous people as something of the past. But they’re alive now. They’re living now.”

Filmmaker & EL guest Sam Potter

Soaring golden eagle Mongolia

Image: EL guest Tammy McCorkle

Experiencing the way of life of Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters and their hunting practices has become a major focus of the tourism industry in Mongolia, especially for those seeking an authentic experience. However, as tourism to western Mongolia has increased, so too has its impact on the land, culture, and way of life.

The skill and knowledge required for capturing, training, and hunting with an eagle are long-standing cultural traditions unique to the Kazakh people. These traditions are passed down through generations, helping to sustain the community, preserve Kazakh heritage, and provide a sense of identity.

“My ancestors are native to Altai sum. We have been living here for seven generations. My relatives and ancestors were eagle hunters. Eagle hunting is one of Kazakh traditions and cultures, that’s why we must teach our children. I learned eagle hunting from my big brother. I taught eagle hunting to my daughter. Now she is teaching her younger sister,” says eagle hunter Asker.

However, as tourism has grown, the relationship between some hunters and their eagles has also changed, posing a threat to both the eagles and the traditions themselves. What are the ethics of the relationship between tourism and hunting with eagles in Mongolia?

Challenges And Preservation Efforts At Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals

The Mongol Kazakh eagle hunters we work with in long-term community partnerships have all learned their skills from their fathers or other male relatives. However, with the rise in international visitors, there is growing concern that the festivals are attracting profit-seeking participants—referred to as ‘showman’ hunters by a local festival organiser. This trend threatens both the conservation of the wild eagle population and the commodification of cultural traditions. To address these issues, the largest festival organiser is collaborating with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre of Mongolia on a programme designed to responsibly manage the increase in visitors. This initiative aims to establish a community-managed system of accountability, ensuring the conservation and sustainability of the wild eagle population while preserving the cultural identity of Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters.

Read more in our blog post  – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/hunting-using-eagles-mongolia-the-ethics/.

Golden Eagle Mongolia

Image: EL guest Tammy McCorkle

Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are prized by Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters for their agility, speed, and acute eyesight, which is essential for spotting prey in the vast, often snow-covered terrain. These magnificent birds of prey, known as berkuts by the Kazakh hunters due to their golden nape feathers, are among the largest eagles in the world.

The landscapes of western Mongolia are ideal for the natural hunting habits of golden eagles. These birds either soar above the land, scanning for prey, or perch on rocks to detect movement below. Female golden eagles are preferred by hunters as they are stronger and more aggressive than males. With an extremely strong grip and sharp talons, golden eagles are adept predators, particularly suited to winter hunting for hares and foxes.

Kazakh eagle hunters traditionally use ‘jealousy traps’ to capture eagles between the ages of 2-3 years, a stage when the birds are considered subadults—after they have fledged but before reaching maturity. These traps are set during the eagles’ migration through the Altai region. While some hunters lack the time to capture their own eagles, there is a tradition within the Kazakh community where skilled trappers sell eagles to other hunters. However, many hunters also capture their eagles as chicks, known as eyasses, directly from the nest.

Eagles are typically released back into the wild after one to ten years, allowing them to breed and raise young. They are usually released in the summer when they are well-fed and prey is abundant. Hunters mark the underside of the eagle’s wing with a piece of white cloth for identification. An exceptionally skilled hunting eagle is given the title of kiran, which remains even after the eagle is released, along with its identifying cloth.

While in the care of hunters, eagles usually wear a hood known as a tomaga, made of leather and fitted to the bird’s head to cover its eyes and keep it calm. This hood is removed for hunting.

During the summer months, the eagles are not used for hunting. Starting in late August, hunters begin conditioning the birds for the winter hunting season. Traditionally, a toghorr, a three-legged stool, was used as an eagle perch, but now rocks and even car tires are commonly used. Eagles are fed by hand using a sapdiak, an almond-shaped wooden bowl found in every hunter’s kitchen.

The relationship between the Mongol Kazakh eagle hunters and their eagles is a partnership rather than one of dominance. The Kazakh hunters approach their eagles with respect and practicality, forming a close bond with them. For the time they are with the hunter, the eagles are considered almost like family members, though this may be difficult for outsiders to recognise.

Capturing and training an eagle requires understanding and patience, which is why not all Kazakh herders become ‘berkutchi’—they simply do not have the time. There is a tradition within the Kazakh community where skilled individuals trap eagles and sell them to other hunters who may lack the time or means to trap their own.

In contrast, in other areas of Mongolia, you may encounter captive birds of prey with clipped wings used for posing for photographs. These eagles, often found in tourist hotspots like Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin, the Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue near Ulaanbaatar, and even in Ulgii during the eagle festival season, are not the same as the eagles owned and released by Mongolia’s Kazakh eagle hunters.

Eagle hunting in Kazakhstan is primarily for fur rather than meat, with the main prey being foxes, whose winter fur is particularly valuable. Hunting occurs from late October through to mid-February. Although more efficient methods like rifles exist, Kazakhs hunt with eagles for tradition, freedom, and the sense of identity it provides.

Hunting with eagles typically takes place 3-4 days a week during the winter season and requires at least two people: one to hold and release the eagle and another to flush out the prey. If the eagle has a height advantage, it is likely to catch the prey, which then goes to the person who helped flush it out.

Considerations for Experiencing a Hunt

At Eternal Landscapes, we do not arrange contrived experiences where live prey is pre-captured, held, and released specifically for our guests to photograph. We avoid artificial experiences as they damage the culture, way of life, and wildlife.

  • Fitness Level: Hunting with eagles is a very physical activity. Tour companies often provide a vehicle for those concerned about the cold or riding a horse. You can observe a hunt from the vehicle using binoculars.
  • Horseback Riding: Confident riders comfortable with heights can join the hunters on horseback. The terrain will be uneven with loose shale, and the horse may slip. It will also be extremely cold. Once the eagle captures its prey, hunters descend rapidly to ensure the eagle doesn’t damage the pelt. Note that you may not see much of the actual hunt once the eagle is released.
  • Walking: You can walk to a high spot where the eagle hunters gather to observe their surroundings. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the spot from which they release the eagle, as it depends on where the prey is flushed from.

Immerse Yourself in the Life of Mongol Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Western Mongolia

We offer a range of immersive experiences that allow you to live alongside the Mongol Kazakh eagle hunters of Western Mongolia, with whom we have long-term local community partnerships. Please note that during the summer months, Mongolia’s eagle hunters do not fly, train, or hunt with their eagles. However, the eagles still reside with their families, and you can meet them during this time. Summer is when the birds are moulting in the wild and are ‘rested,’ providing an ideal opportunity to observe their natural behaviours and learn about their care.

Joining Our With Eagle Hunters Experience

We offer a hunting with eagles experience where you are hosted by Kazakh families, all headed by eagle hunters with whom we have long-term community partnerships. As our guest, you will experience the Kazakh herding way of life and the tradition of hunting with eagles, traveling alongside the hunters and becoming part of the hunting experience. Out here, all schedules are flexible. You’re on nomad time, and hunting activities depend on your host family, the eagle, and the weather conditions. We leave these days entirely in the hands of the eagle hunters to ensure an authentic trip. You will witness the eagle hunt and the close relationship and communication needed between hunter and eagle. The birds can weigh over 6 kg; hunting with them requires skill, strength, and courage.

Our long-term community partnerships with Mongol Kazakh families enable us to facilitate an authentic, community-driven experience. You’ll become part of these families’ daily routines, living alongside them, witnessing their age-old traditions, and gaining insights into their way of life. Our approach sets us apart, as we prioritize benefiting and supporting each family rather than disrupting their lives. We believe in the power of flexibility, allowing the daily plan to evolve under the guidance of your Kazakh eagle hunter hosts. This approach fosters a more respectful and genuine experience for all involved.

For those concerned about the welfare of the eagles, Kazakh hunters have a respectful yet practical approach to their birds. They have a close connection with their eagles, considering them virtually family members, though this may be difficult for outsiders to recognize. We do not arrange contrived experiences where live prey is pre-captured, held, and then released on purpose for our guests to photograph. We will never arrange any artificial experiences, as they damage the culture, the way of life, and the wildlife itself.

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:

“‘I can’t live without an eagle. If I have free time, I like to go to the mountains. It helps – riding, hiking, running and going hunting. There is no stress.”

Eagle hunter Bashakhan

Asker

A family photograph of the Asker Kazakh family during one of our Mongolia trips

Dakhar

Dakhar - Kazakh herder at Tsambagarav National Park in western Mongolia

Bashakhan

Kazakh eagle hunter Mongolia

Aikerim

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

Aibolat & Baibolat

Kazakh eagle hunter

Sailaukhan

Kazakh eagle hunter

Exploring the Culture of Mongol Kazakh Eagle Hunters

“I am grateful to the (Mongolian) government (for allowing my ancestors this land). We are Kazakh people who keep our own language, tradition and culture. For this, the government gave us a separate province to live (Bayan Ulgii) to allow us to preserve our national culture. This place has pure water and has four seasons. It is also a very safe and free place. In my opinion, we can’t find this place anymore in the world – somewhere where people can stay with their families in such safety and security.”

Eagle hunter Bashakhan

Winter Migration Western Mongolia

Image: EL guest Massimo Rumi

Herders do not migrate randomly; each move is a careful decision based on the quality of the pasture. Herders continuously micro-adapt, and each family varies in how often and when they move.

Not all of Mongolia’s Kazakhs are herders. However, those who are, including eagle hunters, conduct seasonal migrations with their livestock throughout the year in search of fresh pasture. The frequency of these migrations varies: some families move twice a year, while others may move 3-4 times or more, depending on the quality of the pasture each year.

  • Winter: Typically spent in valleys protected by mountains in adobe-style homes, with livestock kept in corrals that are repaired before each winter.
  • Spring and Summer: Spent at higher elevations, often near glacial meltwater sources.
  • Autumn: Some families move to the open steppe.

A portion of Mongolia’s Kazakh herders undertake a spring migration to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. This migration can occur from February to April, with February often chosen despite being the coldest month. This timing allows animals to move before giving birth in March, as young animals would not survive the migration. The spring migration is particularly tough because livestock are thin after a long winter.

The spring migration covers approximately 150 km over 5 to 6 days. The traditional herding lifestyle is combined with elements of modern settled life to improve living conditions. For instance, herders use mobile phones and vehicles. During the spring migration, most families use trucks to transport the older generation, women, children, and possessions, leaving the men to manage the animals on the journey.

Learn how you can join a seasonal migration here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/altai-migration-trails-mongolia-small-group-tour/

A Mongolian yak herder battling the winter weather conditions during winter in Mongolia

Image: EL guest Massimo Rumi

The Nauryz Festival is celebrated by Kazakhs throughout Mongolia. Nauryz translates to ‘new day,’ with March 21 officially recognized as International Nauryz Day. However, the holiday itself is celebrated between March 19 and 22, depending on calendars and vernal equinox calculations. Nauryz marks the first day of the spring equinox and is a celebration of both spring and renewal.

Nauryz is not only a state holiday for Kazakhs in Mongolia but is also celebrated in all countries of Central Asia, as well as in Georgia, India, Iran, China, Turkey, and others. In 2009, Nauryz was included in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Learn more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/nauryz-festival-mongolia/

Traditional Kazakh horse games

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

Mongolia’s Eagle Festivals are community-developed cultural events that promote Kazakh culture and the tradition of hunting with eagles. While the most well-known festivals occur in the autumn in Bayan Ulgii Province in western Mongolia, other events take place throughout the year, including during Nauryz, the spring celebration in March throughout Central Asia.

Typically, the festivals are sponsored by local tour companies but are run in partnership with the Mongolian Eagle Hunter’s Association. For participants, the festivals serve as both a social occasion and a competition with prize money. The main focus of the festivals is the working relationship between the hunter and their eagle, with the primary competition highlighting the speed, agility, and accuracy of the berkut (female Golden Eagle) as it responds to the hunter’s lure. As an observer, these festivals offer a wealth of cultural experiences, allowing you to mingle with small-town residents, herders, and Kazakh hunters.

Learn more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolias-eagle-festivals/

At one of Mongolia's Eagle Festivals

Image: EL guest Tammy McCorkle

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

Image: EL guest Marios Forsos

You’ve probably heard of Aisholpan, the star of the popular 2016 documentary “The Eagle Huntress.” However, you may not be familiar with Aikerim, Ahkelik, or Zamanbol. These young eagle huntresses also train and hunt with their eagles, finding a sense of freedom and connection with their cultural traditions and elders.

We are proud to work with several eagle huntresses and their families. At EL, all our trip assistants (guides) are Mongolian women. We believe that seeing women in independent roles is one of the best ways to inspire young girls in rural communities, including eagle huntresses, showing them that they can pursue similar paths. Eagle hunting has enabled these young women to become courageous and has taught them the strength of perseverance as they continue to overcome obstacles and centuries of tradition.

Though they are eagle hunters who enjoy meeting people from different cultures and countries and are often featured in media, they are also young women who attend school, post selfies on social media, and spend time with their friends. We respect their schooling and never impose on their schedules, understanding that education is crucial for their future. As visitors, your opportunity to meet them will depend on their availability. However, you will be part of their household, joining their father, brother, or uncle in hunting activities, and thus experiencing 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. Kazakh cooking is based on boiling horse and mutton, though Mongolian dishes are frequently found as well. In the summer months, dairy products also feature prominently. While we understand that you may have dietary restrictions or food intolerances, as a guest of a family, it is polite to avoid refusing food too forcibly.

Experiencing Kazakh hospitality in western Mongolia

Image: EL guest Massimo Rumi

Kazakh hospitality western Mongolia

If you visit a Kazakh family, you will probably get to try beshbarmak, a dish consisting of boiled horse or mutton. This is one of the most popular Kazakh dishes, also called “five fingers” because it is eaten with the hands. Traditionally, the chunks of boiled meat are cut and served by the host in order of the guests’ importance. Another favorite Kazakh dish you may be invited to try is kazy, a traditional sausage made of fattened horsemeat, often part of a celebratory meal.

During festivals or in the markets of Ulgii, you will also find shashlik, kebabs cooked over a charcoal fire, typically made from lamb or beef.

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

There are year-round domestic flights to Ulgii, the provincial capital of Bayan Ulgii Province, from Ulaanbaatar with MIAT, Hunnu Air, and AeroMongolia. While there are no daily flights, the service is reliable. Ulgii, though it may feel like the end of the road, is worth spending time in, especially exploring the black market.

Ulgii - the provincial capital of western Mongolia

Image: EL guest Meei Wong

If no flights to Ulgii are available, consider flying into Khovd, the provincial capital of Khovd aimag, and transferring approximately 220 km by road to Ulgii. Most of the road is now asphalt, and public buses are available for those who don’t arrange a transfer.

Additionally, there are daily bus services connecting Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Ulgii. Buses depart from the Dragon Center bus terminal in Ulaanbaatar.


Although carbon offsets are not perfect and are not a complete solution, they do make a difference. Emissions per kilometer for domestic flights are higher because a large proportion of the flight is spent taking off and landing. With this in mind, we calculate the offset for all domestic flights used by our guests and the EL team, and we purchase Plan Vivo Foundation carbon certificates 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 to support the Mongolian Nomad Project, use this link:  https://eternallandscapes.c-level.earth/Flight

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