The eagle hunters of Kyrgyzstan

The art of hunting using eagles was introduced into Kyrgyzstan from Mongolia during the time of Genghis Khan. Today there are some fifty men left who continue the tradition, including Talgarbek who came to demonstrate the art with his nine-year-old golden eagle, Tumara.

We were outside the traditional hunting season, as the birds moult in summer and so are left to rest apart from short displays for tourists. In the winter, however, Talgarbek may take his eagle out into the mountains for several days at a time on hunting expeditions. There, her job is to follow her natural instinct and hunt, and his job is to keep an eye on where she is and follow her so as to get a share of the prey. Both animal skins and meat may then be sold to nomads he passes on his route. When “at home” he feeds her (around 600g of fresh meat, usually rabbit) only every second day, as she will not hunt if she is not hungry.

For the display, it is possible to see her kill a live rabbit, but we had been warned that this can be upsetting. Apparently they are tame rabbits brought up by the hunter and his family; the eagle will not hunt/kill when she is hooded and cannot therefore see her prey properly and the rabbits are used to her presence. On a previous display the guide said the rabbit had not even realised it was supposed to run away and so just sat there as the eagle landed until the bird started pecking at it. Not quite the same as seeing an eagle coming down and grabbing a rabbit in its talons and tearing it to pieces, which might be a spectacle worth seeing (given that the eagle has to eat…). So for us he used a fox fur, pulled along the ground by a rope, as the prey. The eagle, left unhooded and free on a rock a little up the mountainside, quickly spotted the fur and swooped down onto it, at which point the hunter ran up, fed her some alternative food (presumably the rabbit!) and removed the fur.

We were each allowed to hold her, by wearing the thick leather glove which she sits on, and when I asked if I could stroke her I was told that was fine. Although she was hooded at the time, it was still quite a thrill to hold such an impressive bird.

Tumara was taken from her nest in a difficult operation requiring climbing ropes, when her flight feathers were just sprouting. At this stage the parents fly off to hunt for several hours at a time, and the young are sufficiently developed to be taken away. There were two young in the nest, a male and female, and Talgarbek chose the female explaining to us that they are easier to train, being less aggressive.

The hunter spends several hours a day with the bird and comes to be seen as the surrogate parent. Indeed that relationship works both ways, as Talgarbek says he will miss her dreadfully when he finally lets her go – that it will be like a daughter leaving home to get married – but that he will have to free her in order to give her the opportunity to find a mate and live out her adult years as a free bird. He will probably keep her until she is about twenty, which will leave her some thirty years of freedom.

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