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Mongolia’s Eagle Hunters – The Last Nomads 2024

Mongolia’s Eagle Hunters – The Last Nomads 2024

Mongolia, a land of vast steppes, rugged mountains, and clear blue skies, is home to one of the world’s most fascinating and ancient traditions: eagle hunting. This millennia-old practice, primarily found in the western part of the country among the Kazakh people, involves training golden eagles to hunt small animals. The bond between the eagle and its hunter is profound, rooted in mutual respect and a deep understanding of the natural world.

Visiting Mongolia to witness this tradition offers a glimpse into a way of life that has remained largely unchanged for centuries. This guide aims to share insights into the eagle hunting tradition and how to visit these communities respectfully, ensuring that guests and hosts benefit from the exchange. From attending the Golden Eagle Festival to exploring the Altai Mountains where these nomadic communities live, each point will uncover the heart of eagle hunting culture, offering advice on making the most of this unique journey.

History of Eagle Hunting 

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The tradition of eagle hunting, known as berkutchi, is an ancient practice that dates back thousands of years and is deeply rooted in the nomadic cultures of Central Asia, particularly among the Kazakh and Kyrgyz peoples. This form of falconry involves training golden eagles to hunt small game, such as hares and foxes, in the harsh mountainous terrain of the Altai region, which spans modern-day Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. The origins of eagle hunting are shrouded in the mists of history, with evidence suggesting that the practice could be as old as 4,000 years, making it one of the oldest relationships between humans and birds of prey.

Eagle hunting was developed out of necessity, for both sustenance and fur for warmth, in the unforgiving landscapes inhabited by these nomadic tribes. Over time, it evolved into a respected tradition, passed down from generation to generation, symbolizing the hunter’s skill, bravery, and bond with nature. The golden eagle, revered for its strength, agility, and loyalty, symbolized pride and status within these communities. The eagles are captured at a young age, trained with patience and respect, and after years of hunting together, they are often released back into the wild, signifying the deep reverence hunters have for these majestic birds.

The 20th century brought significant challenges to the tradition of eagle hunting, with the rise of Soviet influence in Central Asia leading to restrictions on nomadic lifestyles and hunting practices. However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent resurgence of national identities and cultural heritage in these regions have led to a revival of eagle hunting. Today, it is celebrated as a sport and an important cultural heritage, with festivals, competitions, and educational programs to preserve this ancient art for future generations.

In recent years, the tradition has gained international attention, attracting visitors and enthusiasts from around the globe who are interested in witnessing the bond between eagles and hunters. Despite its growing popularity, eagle hunting remains a deeply personal and spiritual practice for the hunters, embodying a way of life that respects the rhythms of nature and the ancestral wisdom of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia.

1. The Golden Eagle Festival

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Pises Tungittipokai

The Golden Eagle Festival, held annually in the Bayan-Ölgii province of Mongolia, is a spectacular event that showcases the skills of eagle hunters and their majestic birds. The festival includes competitions in eagle hunting techniques, traditional Kazakh games, and cultural exhibitions, providing a comprehensive look into the traditions of Mongolia’s eagle hunters. Attendees can witness firsthand the incredible partnership between hunter and eagle and enjoy performances of traditional Kazakh music and dance.

Insider’s Tip: Engage with local families and eagle hunters outside of the festival activities. Many are happy to share their way of life with interested visitors, offering a more personal insight into their culture. The festival typically takes place in early October, when the weather is cold but manageable, and the landscape of the Altai Mountains is stunningly beautiful.

2. Homestay With an Eagle Hunter’s Family

Image Credit: Shutterstock / De Visu

Staying with an eagle hunter’s family in their traditional ger (yurt) offers an opportunity to understand Mongolia’s nomadic communities’ daily life and traditions. Guests can observe the training and care of the eagles, participate in daily chores, and enjoy traditional Kazakh meals. This intimate experience fosters a deeper appreciation of the eagle hunters’ connection to their environment and the skills passed down through generations.

Insider’s Tip: Bring gifts to show respect and gratitude for your hosts. Useful items for their daily life or traditional sweets from your home country are appreciated.

3. Photography and Ethical Considerations

Image credit: Shutterstock / nurmukhamed battur

Photographing the eagle hunters and their eagles can result in stunning imagery that captures the essence of this ancient tradition. However, it’s crucial to approach photography with respect and sensitivity. Always ask for permission before taking photos, especially during private moments or within the family ger. Consider hiring a local guide who can facilitate interactions and explain the cultural significance of what you are witnessing.

Insider’s Tip: Invest in a good zoom lens to capture detailed shots of the hunters and eagles without intruding on their space or disturbing the animals.

4. Exploring the Altai Mountains

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The Altai Mountains, a rugged and remote region in western Mongolia, are the backdrop to the eagle hunting tradition. This area, characterized by its vast landscapes, snow-capped peaks, and clear alpine lakes, offers more than just a setting for eagle hunting; it’s a destination for adventure and exploration. Visitors can trek through the mountains, visit ancient petroglyph sites, and witness the diverse wildlife that calls this region home. The Altai Mountains are significant for their natural beauty and cultural importance to the Kazakh people and their eagle hunting practices.

Insider’s Tip: For a truly immersive experience, consider a guided trek that includes visits to eagle hunter families living in the mountains. These guides can provide invaluable insights into the landscape and its cultural significance.

5. Attending a Training Session

Image Credit: Pexels / Julia Volk

Witnessing an eagle hunter train their eagle is an intimate glimpse into the essence of this tradition. These training sessions, often held in the vastness of the Mongolian landscape, showcase the communication and bond between hunter and eagle. Visitors can see how eagles are prepared for hunting, from the initial bonding to training flights and simulated hunts. This experience highlights the skills and patience required in eagle hunting, passed down through generations.

Insider’s Tip: Respect the hunter’s focus and the eagle’s concentration during training sessions by maintaining a quiet presence and keeping a respectful distance.

6. Learning about Conservation Efforts

Image Credit: Pexels / Julia Volk

The golden eagle, central to the hunting tradition, is a species that requires protection and conservation efforts to ensure its survival. In recent years, there has been an increased focus on sustainable practices within the eagle hunting community, including regulations on the capture and release of eagles. Visitors interested in conservation can learn about these efforts through local wildlife organizations and conservation groups working in Mongolia. Understanding the balance between cultural traditions and wildlife conservation adds depth to the eagle hunting experience.

Insider’s Tip: Support conservation efforts by engaging with and donating to local organizations dedicated to protecting Mongolia’s wildlife and natural habitats.

7. Visiting the Eagle Hunter’s Winter Camp

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Julia Baturina

The winter camp of an eagle hunter, typically situated in the more sheltered valleys of the Altai Mountains, offers a rare insight into the resilience and adaptability of the nomadic lifestyle in the harsh Mongolian winter. These camps are where eagle hunters spend the colder months, and the setting starkly contrasts the bustling atmosphere of the festivals and the open expanses used for training and hunting. A visit to a winter camp allows guests to see how the hunters and their families live in close quarters with their animals, maintaining centuries-old traditions in the face of modern challenges.

Insider’s Tip: Due to the intimate nature of these camps and the challenging winter conditions, visits should be arranged through reputable tour operators who have established relationships with the eagle hunting families and can ensure that your visit is welcome and respectful.

8. Supporting Local Artisans

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The culture of the Kazakh eagle hunters is preserved through the practice of eagle hunting itself and through the rich tradition of craftsmanship accompanying it. Local artisans in the communities create various handcrafted items, from the ornately decorated traditional clothing worn by the hunters and their families to the leather accessories used by the eagles. These items, crafted with skills passed down through generations, are a tangible connection to the culture. Purchasing these crafts provides a unique souvenir of your visit, supports the local economy, and helps keep these traditional skills alive.

Insider’s Tip: When purchasing crafts, take the time to learn about the significance of the designs and the process of creation from the artisans themselves. This not only enriches your understanding but also ensures that you are buying authentic, ethically sourced items.

When to Travel: September and October are the best time to visit for eagle hunting experiences in Mongolia, particularly in the Bayan-Ölgii province. These months align with the Golden Eagle Festival, showcasing the tradition at its most active. Weather conditions are favorable, with cooler temperatures and minimal precipitation, making outdoor activities and festival attendance comfortable.

How to Get There: To reach the eagle hunting regions in Mongolia, travelers typically fly into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. From there, a domestic flight to Ölgii is necessary, as it is the closest city to the eagle hunting communities and the festival location. Ölgii Airport has regular connections from Ulaanbaatar. Upon arrival in Ölgii, transportation to the eagle hunting areas or festival site can be arranged through local tour operators or accommodations, which is essential for accessing remote locations. To ensure availability, advance booking is recommended, especially during the festival period.

The Bottom Line

Image Credit: Pexels / Francesco Bovolin

Journeying to Mongolia to witness the ancient tradition of eagle hunting is an adventure that offers profound insights into a way of life that has endured the test of time. It’s a privilege to be welcomed into these communities, and visitors should approach the experience with the utmost respect and openness. By engaging with the eagle hunters, attending the Golden Eagle Festival, and embracing the nomadic lifestyle, even for a short while, you gain more than just memories; you become part of a story that stretches back generations. As you prepare to return home, carry with you not only photographs and souvenirs but also a deeper understanding of the bond between humans and the natural world, exemplified by Mongolia’s last nomads and their majestic eagles.

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The post Mongolia’s Eagle Hunters – The Last Nomads 2024 first appeared on The Green Voyage.

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Vlad Sokolovsky. 

For transparency, this content was partly developed with AI assistance and carefully curated by an experienced editor to be informative and ensure accuracy.

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