Among the Kazakh Eagle Hunters

An ancient tradition dating back more than 6,000 years, the fur hats and magnificent eagles of each hunter are a matter of great pride amongst the Kazakhs. I stayed with two families living in the remote Altai mountains of Mongolia.

Two hundred years ago the advance of the Russian empire into Kazakhstan sent many Kazakhs across the border into western Mongolia where they settled in the region of Bayan Ulgii.

The Russians continued to occupy Kazakhstan, and traditional Kazakh culture continued to be diluted to the point where, when the soviet union collapsed in 1991, new prime minister Nursultan Nazirbyaev began offering financial and domestic incentives for diaspora Kazakhs in Bayan Ulgii to relocate back to Kazakhstan.

The idea being that they would bring with them traditional practices such as eagle hunting and dombra playing and that this would inspire a revival in the dwindling Kazakh culture and population.

I stayed with two families five hours south of Olgii, in the Altai mountains, who decided against moving back to Kazakhstan in favour of staying in the mountain range that has now become their home, and as much a part of Kazakhstan as their ancestral land itself.

The heads of the two families were brothers and eagle hunting partners. They would saddle up together with golden eagles on their arms and spend afternoons on horseback riding through the Altai mountains hunting rabbits, foxes, marmots, and even wolves.

Below you see Kwanduk, surveying the mountains whilst out hunting with his golden eagle. The eagles are found when they are young and trained up to be used for hunting.

Eagle hunting only really takes place in winter when animals have the thick winter fur that Kazakhs turn into their infamous fur hats.

One of the brother’s grandsons would join us on the hunting trips, he had reached twelve and was now ready to learn the art of eagle hunting. An eagle hunter can travel many miles in a day, mostly on horseback, but the grandson followed the hunt on foot with seemingly endless energy, ready to rush in at the first sight of a kill.

Below, you see Kwanduk out on another morning hunt, and the two brothers pausing at the ridge of a mountain. Their eagles wear special caps to blind them whilst they are not hunting.

The family I stayed with had devised a system of passing the smoke from their fire through the walls of the house in order to stay warm in the winter. In the summer the family are nomadic but during winter the temperatures get down to -30°C and warmth becomes a priority.

In order to get drinking water during the long winter months the families living out in the mountains must melt ice into a bucket.

In the evenings we’d sit around the fire, huddled for warmth, melting ice to drink. Kwanduk, the elder of the two brothers, told me about how the Kazakhs came to this part of Mongolia two hundred years ago, fleeing the Russian invasions in their home country.

When I asked him what home meant to him and why he hadn’t wanted to move back he made a wide arc with his arms, pointing down the valley below, blue in the moonlight and etched in the earth.

This was home now and had been for almost two centuries, he said. The foundation of a home is memories more than bricks and mortar.


James Morgan

Photojournalist and film maker focused on projects that explore indigenous cosmologies and the human ecology side of the environmental movement.

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