In Bayan-Ölgii, the westernmost province of Mongolia, the sweeping Altai mountain range separates the frigid Gobi desert from the eastern extent of Kazakhstan. These mountains, where the punishing year-round climate can bring winter temperatures to forty and fifty below zero, is home to Mongolia’s Kazakh minority, a traditionally nomadic people whose way of life has been challenged by modern technology and cultural change. Many still live in traditional yurts, travel primarily by horseback, and do not maintain a consistent mailing address. However, younger generations attending Mongolian schools use cell phones, social media, and the internet, just like their peers around the world, pulling them away from their nomadic roots. However, it’s these digital tools that have helped preserve one of Bayan-Ölgii’s most storied traditions – eagle hunting.
For centuries across the steppes of Central Asia, eagle hunters known as bürkitshi have practiced a type of falconry unique to their part of the world: namely, the type that employs tremendous golden eagles, whose wingspan is nearly three times that of the west’s traditional hunting bird, the peregrine falcon. Hunters, often mounted, ride deep into the mountains and beyond the reaches of civilization to position themselves on peaks and cliffs where they scan for their desired targets – typically rabbits, foxes, and marmots, hunted for their pelts. Once prey has been spotted, the eagles swoop down to collect, although encounters on the ground can sometimes turn dangerous – especially when an eagle and its hunter target wolves and wild cats, whose furs are prized but who pose a danger to the eagles, who don’t typically hunt such large predators. If the hunt is successful, bürkitshi return home to process their collected pelts.
The practice of eagle hunting is an integral piece of the artwork and oral tradition of the nomadic Kazakh people. It lies somewhere between sport and necessity: While its fruits are put to practical purpose in the traditional fur garments of the nomadic Kazakh people, most contemporary hunters practice for leisure or as homage to their ancestry. The number of true bürkitshi left today is debated; while nearly four-hundred hunters are officially registered, some Kazakh elders claim that only a few-dozen hunters still practice with the same skill as past generations. Part of the tradition’s decline is certainly due to the labor required to train and maintain an eagle; eaglets must be captured from the wild a few months after their birth, and the training process takes immense skill and time. Although the eagles often live for thirty years, tradition stipulates that hunters release their birds after no more than a decade in captivity, meaning trainers must restart the process every decade.
In 2014, photographs of the teenage eagle huntress Aisholpan went viral, and two years later, a western documentary film titled “The Eagle Huntress” followed her quest to win the central competition of Western Mongolia’s annual Golden Eagle Festival. The immense popularity of the documentary led to a wave of foreign interest in eagle hunting, and now the Golden Eagle Festival draws over a thousand foreign tourists each year. This foreign attention has helped revitalize the sport. While older generations bemoan the commercialization of the cultural tradition, they’ll admit that before the foreign interest, the practice had been at risk of fading into obscurity. Additionally, in a New York Times feature from 2018, reporters in Bayan-Ölgii documented teenagers who went to hunt with their eagles like American teens went to the mall, having fun on horseback and sharing their experience on social media. Youth interest in eagle hunting seems to have helped older generations reconnect with younger ones, stalling fears that the cultural traditions of the nomadic mongolian Kazakhs would be supplanted in younger generations.
In Bayan-Ölgii, the epic practice of eagle-hunting was caught in decades of generational decline as younger members of the local Kazakh minority slowly forgot a somewhat anachronistic practice that had long defined their culture. Luckily, the young eagle hunters that have chosen to bring their tradition forward have caught the imagination of a global audience and have set their practice on an upward trajectory that should ensure its continued existence for decades to come.