Golden eagles live in the high Altai mountains in Mongolia. They create their nests in the steep cliffs of the region’s rugged peaks. The trees there are few. People of the steppes rely almost entirely on hunting to provide for themselves–especially during the cold and treacherous winter months.
Hunters who hail from the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan climb up to these crevices to capture the young golden eagles at around four years of age. It is said to be the perfect age: for it is when the bird is old enough to hunt, but young enough to still be partial to human companionship.
To domesticate the eagle, it is fed by hand and will henceforth reside with the hunter’s family. The home of the hunter will be the eagle’s new nest and adopted family. The burkitshi consider the eagle a family member; akin to a wife or a child. The bond between the Mother Eagle and the hunter is a fascinating one; for eagles have never been domesticated in the same way as other animals.
During the communist era, many Kazakhs fled for Mongolia to avoid being forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle as many were sent off to work in farms. They settled in Bayan-Ölgii Province and brought with them their tradition of eagle hunting. Archaeologists trace back falconry in Central Asia to the first or second millennium BC. There are presently believed to be an estimated 250 eagle hunters in Bayan-Ölgii.
When it’s time to hunt, the men will take their eagles high into the mountains. They will begin by scanning the valleys below for foxes, hares and other suitable prey. The eagle’s hood will be removed and the fierce hunter will fly down to seize its prey. Mother Eagles are preferred to male birds as they have a larger wingspan and have a reputation for being stronger and fiercer.
Once the prey has been caught, a portion is allocated to the eagle to consume first. The rest of the prey is brought back to the family. Do eagles enjoy this partnership? It is hard to say. They are known to scratch and claw their hunting companions, even after years of ‘domestication’.
Although eagles can live till the age of 30, hunters only keep them in domicile for around a decade years.
The bird is taken far away to be released. If necessary, the hunter will hide or wait until it is dark to ensure that the Mother Eagle doesn’t follow him back. It is then released to live out its last years in the wild–its true home.
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