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The Eagle Hunters of Mongolia

The "new generation" of eagle hunters project

During my last voyage to Mongolia, I flew over to Ulgii (or ölgii), the capital of the far west. I went there in order to document the Kazakh eagle hunters' lives in west Mongolia. These eagle hunters, who preserve an old tradition that’s passed from generation to generation, tame eagles and use them for hunting smaller animals, such as foxes and marmots. The eagle hunter’s families live on this side of Mongolia after having migrated between Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia until the fall of communism and closing of all borders. The tradition’s preservation was what drew me to them. They preserve it without any touristic nature, unlike in Kazakhstan. These Kazakh eagle hunters, who live in Mongolia today, are the last ones on earth who still deserve the title “Eagle Hunter”. It is not merely a title to them, but a way of life.

At first, I was doing everything according to my plan. I hired a chauffeur and a local translator who would guide me and take me to the eagle hunter’s families in the mountains. I made sure I would spend at least a day with every family for the sake of personally getting to know them. I had played with the children and I had taken photos that document their way of life’s atmosphere. Afterwards, I had gone to the mountains with the family’s father, and documented him over the course of a hunt. I also photographed him during sunset, on horseback, proudly holding on to his golden eagle.

On the way back from the mountains, however, it felt like something was missing. I felt like all the photos I’d taken over the last few days were a mere reflection of previous photos and stories, distinguished only by slight light and place differences. It wasn't enough for me. I knew I had to find another way and tell a new story that was not yet told in the snowy Mongolian mountains. I tried coming up with new ways of photographing the eagle hunters. Should I use different lenses? Ask them to perform tasks other than hunting? How could I tell a more interesting story than “Even today, there are eagle hunters in Mongolia”? From previous acquaintances with the land of the open steppes, I had known about the difficulty of trying and defining it. Modern Mongolia is a young country that was created after the fall of communism in 1990. In addition, we all have a vague image of 13th century Mongolia, during Chinggis Khaan’s reign, the Manchurian reign or even the communist reign, but today’s Mongolia is going through somewhat of a transition – it’s no longer communist but not yet fully modern.

I've decided to focus myself, stop looking for a portrait of centuries old image of a Kazakh eagle hunter, and search for a portrait representing the future of this ancient Mongolian tradition. I wanted to document the “Future Generation” – boys who take their first steps in learning the hunting skills, boys who hold the tradition’s future in their bare hands.
And that is my story.

I traveled north of Ulgii to the Chaulting area, a ridge nearby the Russian frontier. It is, by far, one of the most beautiful places I've seen in all my travels to Mongolia. After having searched for quite some time and having visited a lot of different families, I had found 13 year old Irka Bolen. He was the first boy I photographed for the project.

Tradition-wise, when a boy turns 13, and he’s strong enough to carry the weight of a grown eagle, his father starts training him in the ancient hunting technique. They say, that in the Kazakh tradition, there’s over a thousand ways of training and hunting using the eagle, and each family masters their own special technique. Irka Bolen was the perfect beginning to my project, since I wasn't dealing with an eagle hunter - but rather with a small boy embarking on the quest of learning the ways of his tradition. In my work with Irka Bolen I found it to be important that I show his training alongside his father on the mountain tops.

After having spent a few days with Irka Bolen’s family, I've decided it was time to move on with my journey. I wanted to add another side to the story. I've learned that according to Kazakh tradition, it takes the hunters about five years to finish his training. After that, the boy must have a successful hunt, after which he would receive the “Eagle Hunter” title. I wanted to find the youngest eagle hunter living in Mongolia - the first of his generation. In order to achieve this new goal, we had to take south, to a place called Hen Gohadok. There I met Bahak Birgen. Bahak Birgen is an unusual boy. When he turned 8 his father decided that he was strong enough for training, and began working with him before the common time. That’s how 14 year old Bahak Birgen became the well known “Youngest Eagle Hunter in Mongolia”.

It was a spectacular vision, seeing the connection between Bahak Birgen and his eagle. Usually, Kazakhs capture their eagle in his early years and raise him themselves. They feed the eagle, give him a warm place to rest in the cold Mongolian nights and they teach him how to hunt. Eight years later, in spring time, the hunter will take his eagle to the mountains, will lay a butchered sheep on one of the cliffs as a farewell present, and he will send his eagle away for the last time. That’s how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations. That is the Kazakh tradition’s way of living in harmony with nature.

After having photographed Irka Bolen and Bahak Birgen I was left with enough time and money on my budget to photograph one last eagle hunter for the project. I didn't want to add an additional version of the previous shots, but rather look for something more than “another boy”. I knew I was dealing with the question of the Mongolia’s eagle hunter’s future – so I thought to myself what is keeping me from looking for my own answer to this question? What will I like to see in the coming years?

I've learned that Mongolia’s rough surface and difficult climate were the reason that the eagle hunting art was meant for men alone. I thought to myself that in a country where seventy percent of its educated population are women, and most of its education institutes are run by females – is it possible to think that the future of the art of eagle hunting tradition could also lean on feminine shoulders?
I had gone looking for my eagle huntress.

I found her in the form of Ashol Pan, the daughter of an experienced eagle hunter around Han Gohadok, which is south of Ulgii. She was perfect. I was amazed by her comfort and ease as she began handling the grand eagle for the first time in her life. She was fearlessly carrying it on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.

At the end of the photographing session, I sat down with her father and the translator to say my goodbyes, and I asked him this:

“How did it feel watching your daughter dressed in Kazakh uniform, on a mountain top, sending the eagle off and calling it back again?”

“Very good”

“And honestly... would you have considered truly training her? Would she become Mongolia’s first ever female eagle huntress?”

I expected a straightforward “No” or a joking “Maybe”, but after a short pause he replied:

“Up until two years ago my eldest son was the successor of the eagle hunting tradition in our family. Alas, two years ago he was drafted to the army, and he’s now an officer, so he probably won’t be back with the tradition. It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn't dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place.”

From the father’s answer I realized that the idea of women’s participation in keeping the tradition is a possible future, but just like many other aspect of Mongolian life, it's an option which women will need to take on by themselves.

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