Why you should care
Because old traditions can find new life in surprising ways.
For generations in Kyrgyzstan, nomadic herders depended on eagle hunting to survive during the winter. This traditional practice of using eagles to hunt dramatically declined during the Soviet years. But recently it has become more popular with young Kyrgyz people.
Armed with a smartphone and a taigan hunting dog at his heel, 23-year-old Salavat Aibekov represents the new age of eagle hunters in Kyrgyzstan. He wears the traditional costume of Kyrgyz hunters: a thick red jacket, felt hat and heavy, wide belt. Aibekov, who lives in the village of Bokonbaevo, was taught the traditional hunting skills from his uncle, part of a long line of hunters (aka “berkutchi”) on his mother’s side.
Aibekov believes social media and tourism are to thank for instilling pride and a resurgence in the eagle-hunting tradition. He posts regularly on his Instagram page — drawing a boost from Kyrgyzstan’s celebrity archer Aida Akmatova — and captured gold in the 2018 World Nomad Games.
“All of us nowadays have a cell phone and Instagram and Facebook,” he says. “So after people see [the social media posts], both in our country and also abroad, they become interested.”
You can’t feed them too little, as they will be angry, or too much, as they will be too lazy.
After posting his photos on Instagram, the interest in eagle hunting has soared. He believes that more young Kyrgyz men are becoming interested in learning how to hunt with eagles again as a sport that is now part of the biannual World Nomad Games, essentially the Olympics for nomads.
One of the smallest and lesser-known countries in the “Stans,” Kyrgyzstan (population: 6 million) is forever riding on the coattails of Mongolia as one of the top countries to visit in the region.
There are about 700 people training in eagle hunting across the country, Aibekov estimates. But only about 50 are recognized as fully qualified experts not only in eagle hunting but archery, horse riding and dog training — the skills of a “solbourn,” a skilled falconer, awarded by the official federation in Kyrgyzstan.
It’s a long process. You can’t simply buy an eagle and hope you can develop an instant bond.
First, a nomadic shepherd is usually consulted to help spot where an eagle has been flying and where a nest may be located. Then a team will organize themselves to observe the eagle’s flying patterns. When the mother is out hunting, they’ll seize the moment and check what food she brings and how many chicks are in the nest.
“If the eagle only brings rabbit, we don’t take one from that nest, as it means the mother isn’t a good hunter,” Aibekov says. “But if there is marmot, fox or wolf, this will be a good hunter.”
After taking a promising eagle from the nest, the trainer must develop the bond slowly day by day. “You have to teach [the eagle] signs and you can’t feed them too little, as they will be angry, or too much, as they will be too lazy.”
Aibekov is currently training his younger brother to be an eagle hunter, another heir to his country’s tradition that Salavat is doing his best to press on for generations to come.