Meet the Eagle hunters & watch the Eagle hunting festival
Among many Kazakh traditions is the ancient art of hunting with trained birds of prey. The tradition is believed to originate in Central Asia some 6000 years ago and later on be adopted in Europe and other countries. This centuries-old tradition is still practiced among Kazakhs of Bayan Ulgii province. Most of whom live in Tsats-Uul, Deluun, Tsengel and Bayannuur localities.
After the liberalization of 1990, the tradition of eagle hunting, somewhat downplayed during the socialism, has been revived and now the local Berkut Association counts more than 200 members. For the last few years Bayan-Ulgii Kazakhs held in early October the Eagle Hunting Festival, a colorful and picturesque event attracting the best hunters and birds, and an important celebration for the local community.
The festival begins with each hunter displaying the hunting outfits and elaborate, beautifully adorned accessories. Later, the hunting eagles are evaluated for their skills. The eagles are released from a rock cliff, while their owners stand below and signal for them to land upon their arms, as they do during hunting. Those with the fastest times and best techniques are awarded the highest scores.
In addition to the eagle hunting contests, the participants play such traditional Kazakh games known as kekbar. Two teams compete to pass a goatskin over to their side of the field and the winner throws the skin onto the ger of his choice and this family is expected to host a party for everyone.
The events end in grand dostarkhan, or a party at which the winners are toasted and great hunting tales are shared. This event represents the very essence of the culture of nomadic Kazakhs and once-in-life experience.
Early winter is considered to be the best season for hunting as foxes and other game acquire winter furs. Usually, after the first snowfalls, the hunter rides a horse, holding hunting eagles on his left arm, and wanders among the rugged, snow-topped covered mountains. Often young boys will accompany the hunters and help them to flush the game.
As soon as the hunter spots an escaping fox or marmot, he will send the hunting eagle into the air towards the quarry. The bird first goes up to size up the target and then goes down in one long but swift strike falling right on the spine of the escaping animal. She catches the prey with her iron paws and until the hunter approaches.
Though the gain from eagle hunting is rather shy, it is an amusing sport and entertainment and thus is very popular among the Kazakhs who use the fox furs to make distinctive national winter fur hats. Hunters take great pride in having a clever, quick and valiant hunting eagle.
For hunting purposes, Kazakhs catch and train Golden Eagles, mighty birds of prey common throughout Central Asia. These huge birds weight up to 6.5 kilograms with a wingspan of seven or eight feet.
The talons or claws on an eagle's toes are curved and razor-sharp for catching and holding their prey. This gave eagles the name raptor which comes from a Latin word "rapere" meaning to grip or grasp.
Eagles are "birds of prey," which means they hunt for their food. Eagles fly great distances in order to find a game. Therefore eagles mastered the skill of soaring. They ride the warm flows of air and can speed up to twenty miles per hour almost without effort.
The eagle's eyesight is especially remarkable. With vision about eight times sharper than humans, they can spot a fox or rabbit up to a mile away.
Usually, Kazakh hunters go for female birds as they one third is heavier than males and much more aggressive. Eagles can live up to 50 years but most hunters keep the birds for about 10 years and then release them back into the wild.