Hunting With Eagles | The Kazakh Nomads

If you ever have an opportunity to visit Mongolia to see the Kazakh nomads of Mongolia use eagles for hunting, I highly recommend it. I chose to travel there to stay with nomads in their winter home for a few days before watching them compete in the annual Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia and was literally blown away by breathtaking landscape, the incredible culture, and the fact that they still go hunting with eagles on horseback for meat, furs, and more. Something practiced here for thousands of years.

Hunting With Eagles

Hunting with eagles has been a part of nomad culture in Central Asia for thousands of years. Today, the Kazakh Nomads are one of the few cultures that still practice hunting with golden eagles as a way of life.

Many of the eagle hunting Kazakh nomads live in western Mongolia. They moved here to escape the Russians, when they took over Kazakhstan and tried to abolished their nomadic ways. This is also where the annual Golden Eagle Festival is held, an amazing event which celebrates and supports this ancient tradition. Kazakh nomads enter to compete and show off their skills dressed in traditional furs.

Kazakh Nomads dressed in traditional gear atop their horses at the annual Eagle Festival
Kazakh Eagle Hunting Nomads

Eagle Hunting requires a high degree of training and integration between eagle, nomad, and horse. They work together to hunt rabbit, fox, and other small game, but have also been known to hunt large game, like wolves.

Nomad with His Eagle

As an outstanding example of a living human heritage, UNESCO added Kazakh eagle hunting to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011.

Hunting Process

The hunter rides on his (or her) horse with their eagle on their arm. They wear a special glove that the eagle sits on. As eagles can weigh up to 15 pounds (7 kg), and sometimes open their 6 – 7’ wingspan while riding, a special stick is used to help support the rider’s arm. It’s called a baldak and is attached to the saddle.

An eagle has eyesight 4-8 times better than a human. Taking advantage of this, the hunter takes the eagle up a hill or mountain, for a clear view of the valley.

The Eagles wear caps, so they cannot see, until the hunter removes that cap, so they see, and attack game.
Golden Eagle Wearing a Cap

Although usually the eagle wears a cap (or helmet) and cannot see, when the hunter is ready for the eagle to hunt, the cap is removed.

When the eagle sees game, it’s trained to swoop down to hold it, or kill it, for the hunter. Eagles can dive at speeds up to 190 mph (305 kph), targeting the neck, easily killing small game, instantly. I’ve read that some eagles can even be trained to kill without leaving a mark, allowing the nomad to sell the fur of the animal for a premium. Larger game may need additional assistance from the hunter. The hunter then rides down the mountain to collect the animal. The eagle is always given some of the meat as a reward. Note that the eagle is not on any sort of line or tether, and always returns to the hunter.

Training Golden Eagles To Hunt

The Kazakh take eagle chicks from the nest when they’re young for training. Surprisingly, the female eagles are usually selected as they are usually larger, fiercer, and make better huntresses.

It takes 3-4 years of diligent training to create a skilled eagle. The hunter works with the eagle daily. First, working to gain their trust, by protecting and feeding them. After trust is established, they start training them to hunt, using meat as bits of bait for the eagle.

They also spend a lot of time talking, or singing, to the eagle, so it becomes familiar with their owners voice. Eventually, a unique call is developed that the eagle learns as a signal.

Kazakh nomads of Mongolia Eagle training
Kazakh Nomad With His Eagle

Over time, a very strong bond and a high degree of trust develops between the eagle and the hunter. This is when they become an effective hunting team.

Freeing The Eagle

The hunter eventually releases the eagle back to the wild, so it is free to live out the rest of its life. This happens after about 10 years. The life of an eagle in the wild is about 20-30 years, but longer when they live in captivity.

Eagle Resting On An Ancient Tombstone

When it is time to release the eagle, it’s a time of both sadness and joy for the hunter. Sadness, because they are parting ways, but happiness, because they are gaining their freedom. Often, the bond becomes so strong, so the eagle is released far away, or hidden from, so it does not return.

I’ve read that the hunter often thinks of the eagle after it is released, sometimes even dreaming about them, hoping they are well. This is how strong he bond between the two is.

Young Kazakh Hunters Train With Falcons

Children start to learn about hunting with eagles by starting with falcons. But it’s not just boys. Both men and women have been hunting with eagles for centuries.

The boy below is the child of the Kazakh nomad eagle hunter family I stayed with, showing off his falcon. To learn more about my stay with this family and their fascinating lifestyle, click here.

the children practice hunting with eagles by using falcons.
Kazakh Nomad Child With His Falcon

This little boy was keeping a close eye on his falcon at the annual Eagle Festival in Mongolia.

A young boy at the eagle hunting festival dressed in traditional gear and watching his falcon
Boy With His Falcon At the Eagle Hunting Festival

Currently, there are an estimated 250 – 400 nomadic eagle hunters in Central Asia. As younger generations become attracted to city lights, hunting with eagles as a way of life could be a dying tradition. Hopefully one of these two young boys decides to follow in the footsteps of his father and help keep the tradition alive.

If this interests you at all, I recommend visiting an annual Golden Eagle Festival event. If you don’t feel comfortable coming solo, I recommend Altai Expeditions. They’re the group I used and I was very happy.

Our guide set us up to stay with nomads competing in the event for a few days prior, helping us to learn a little about the culture, then we watched the competition, which was amazing. Making it even better, the brother of the family we stayed with won the competition. See my post on the Mongolian Eagle Festival to read more about the event itself.

Safe Travels!

Julie

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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