Where Hunters Have a Wild Weapon

Where Hunters Have a Wild Weapon
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Why you should care

Because this ancient tradition is falconry on steroids. 

Pet Love: A global look at cozy relationships between people and animals.

The hunter slips on a glove, thick but worn through in spots, and braces for the incoming weight. The bird, now on the hunter’s arm, claws through the would-be protection, piercing his thumb and squeezing his hand. No hard feelings, though. In the westernmost part of Mongolia,

Kazakh nomads use golden eagles to hunt wolves, foxes and rabbits.

There are amateur falconers and then there are Kazakh golden eagle hunters. The tradition has been passed down for thousands of years by the seminomadic Kazakh people who roam the Altai Mountains from Siberia to the Gobi Desert. Around 500,000 nomads exist, but only around 240 still practice the custom in this vast wilderness. At the cusp of boys’ teenage years, they are taught how to hunt with an eagle on horseback, starting with their own bird.

The Kazakh hunters take a 3-month-old female eagle from its nest, just before it learns to fly. Some families have taken eagles from the same mountain for generations, explains Asher Svidensky, an Israeli photographer who spent a month with golden eagle hunters. They train the eagles to hunt wolves in the winter months for the fur, and to reduce the predator population that targets their sheep and goat herds. After maybe five or six years, the hunters release their pets back into the wild, leaving a butchered sheep as an offering. This circle of life is a win-win — the eagles usually live on another 20 years.

For the Kazakhs, hunting is more about pride than food. It’s something “cherished” that is part of their identity, explains Mugi Bayarlkhagva, a master’s student at Johns Hopkins University from Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. Svidensky says the hunters are even seen as “superstars.” Part of that is a product of tourism; two eagle-hunting festivals started in the past 15 years draw global crowds in what feels like the Super Bowl, Svidensky says.

But as with any tradition, not everyone practices the original form. There are the “lazy, unprofessional” hunters who build traps, says Svidensky. One hunter recalled seeing an eagle eating a carcass. So heavy from gorging, it couldn’t fly away, and the hunter trapped him. Ethnic Mongols — including the infamous Genghis Khan — once practiced falconry, which uses the much smaller birds in a mix of sport hunting and pet keeping. According to Bayarlkhagva, the more mainstream sport has dwindled as demand for falcons has grown in Gulf countries. But don’t expect golden eagles to go that way anytime soon.

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