You’ve probably heard of Aisholpan, the focus of the 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress. This famous eagle huntress is a Mongol Kazakh, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority group representing 3-4% of Mongolia’s population (Mongolia’s entire population is just over 3.4 million people). Predominantly located in Western Mongolia, Mongol Kazakhs are known for their tradition of hunting with eagles. A Kazakh who hunts using eagles is known as a ‘berkutchi’ and in 2021 UNESCO added falconry to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as an example of living human heritage. Within western Mongolia, there are approximately 250-300 eagle hunters but this number is fluid.
The traditional skill of hunting with an eagle is now a choice whereas historically, it was a necessity for survival. However, it remains an integral part of the culture of the Mongol Kazakhs and children of both sexes commonly help to care for the eagles owned by their older family members.
Anyone strong enough to carry an eagle while on horseback can begin an apprenticeship with their own eagle and since the documentary, there has been an increase in the number of young female eagle hunters in Western Mongolia. Some of these young women were encouraged by the families looking to cash in on and host the increasing number of visitors inspired by the film to visit the region. Some though were motivated by Asiholpan herself or by observing their male relatives.
There are different levels of being a ‘berkutchi’ and as well as experienced hunters and apprentices there are ‘ berkutchi’ who are trainers – training eagles for other hunters. There are also ‘berkutchi’ who just compete at the eagle festivals. Also, ‘not all Mongol Kazakhs who begin eagle falconry are able to continue: military service, education, marriage, family, and employment can intervene.’ (The Eagle Huntress Ancient Traditions and New Generations, Adrienne Mayor).
Most of the young female huntresses in Western Mongolia do eagle falconry as a hobby in between attending school and carrying out their domestic tasks at home. This doesn’t make what they do any less authentic. Yes, the traditional test of a true ‘berkutchi’ is a successful hunting expedition of several days on horseback. But a female golden eagle can weigh up to 6 – 7 kg and, when hunting, a hunter must ride one-handed, galloping with the bird on their forearm. All of this takes place in freezing temperatures. Most of the female huntresses can handle these conditions but if they do hunt, they typically join their male relatives – brothers, fathers, or grandfathers – who provide guidance and security.
However, even if they don’t hunt, young female eagle hunters love owning and training their eagles for the sense of freedom it provides, for fun, and for the continuation of tradition and a connection with the elders of their culture. An apprenticeship starts during the hunter’s early teenage years and like most teenagers in Mongolia, female hunters choose to go to university and this is often when they stop hunting as they have moved away from their home, family, and community. However, in the time they are owning and training their eagles with their male family members, traditional knowledge is being passed from older to younger generations and this helps to keep knowledge alive, in a real, breathing way for the future. (All hunters release their eagle back into the wild after around seven to ten years.)
We are proud that we form long-term local community partnerships with a number of eagle huntresses and their families. We made a decision to work with a number of families with daughters as young female huntresses. We did this for a number of reasons. One is that a major part of our philosophy is to break down the stereotypes and cliches that are used in tourism in Mongolia and as part of this, we focus on working with a broad spectrum of Mongolian society so that our support is spread further. If you were to meet the younger Mongol Kazakhs that we work in partnership with outside of their family home, then you would probably dismiss them as just young modern kids. However, each owns and trains their own eagle. Yes, their way of life is different to that of most of the other older male eagle hunters that we work with but that’s one reason we work with them – as it gives our guests a contrasting insight into the diversity of the way of life in the region.
Another reason we work with families with young eagle hunter daughters is that 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. (We also feel that having a female guide helps make any visit to the family home of the young eagle huntresses more balanced and respectful.)
What we love is that eagle hunting has allowed 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. As an example, we have enjoyed seeing how our trip assistants and Aisholpan have formed a firm friendship. One of the past discussions included dreams and ambitions (Aisholpan – physician, Oyuha – a member of parliament). Aisholpan received offers from both Harvard and Oxford and said many times to us that although the film was fun, her dream was to be a physician. All we can say is watch this space.
What we do ask our guests to remember is that, although the eagle huntresses are sociable young women who are the subject of many media images, they also have the right to privacy. They are after all young women who enjoy going to school, posting selfies on social media, and meeting with their friends.
And, as all kids do, they grow up. A major part of our philosophy is that we continue to provide support and work with our partner families even when their life circumstances change such as when their eagle-hunting daughters move away to go to college. In this circumstance, we do not look to other families who might have young daughters because international visitors want to photograph or meet an eagle huntress.
This is also why we never guarantee that our guests will get to meet any of the eagle huntresses we work with as all are at school and schooling is important to their future. We like to support rather than impose so never stipulate that the eagle huntresses must be at home or attend a specific festival. But, you’ll be part of their household – going hunting with their father or older brother or uncle – and therefore part of their daily life. Also, festivals usually take place on the weekend and we always invite them to lunch during the festivals even if they’re not competing. They often bring their mum or dad.
You can learn more about the Mongol Kazakhs and their way of life in our guide to hunting with eagles – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/hunting-with-golden-eagles-mongolia/. If you would be interested in joining us, do get in touch.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes