For many years now, I have had a wish to meet and photograph the falconers of Central Asia. The falconers, also called Eagle Hunters, train eagles to hunt small animals and are usually found in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries. I was in Kyrgyzstan last September, where I had an opportunity to spend a few hours speaking to and photographing an Eagle Hunter.
The eagles–a golden eagle in this case–are usually picked up from the nest at an early age. A falconer keeps them for about twenty years and subsequently releases them in the wild. This is a practice that perhaps helped perpetuate their population in the wild during the times when eagle hunting was a common practice across Central Asia.
These eagles have a wingspan of about five feet, almost as long as a man’s hands stretched wide open. You hear a powerful swoosh and feel the air currents when they flap the wings and dive into the prey.
Despite their size, they only weigh about five to eight kilos, and yet feel heavy on the hand on which they are perched. I had the privilege to hold this one briefly, and the the bird weighed down heavily on my hands. It must have been some effort for this falconer to raise the eagle high-up, where he held it for quite some time.
Perhaps the eagles develop a good bonding with the falconer as the bird grows up with him. This eagle was very friendly and did not mind us getting closer or petting its feathers. As you get closer, it’s evident how powerful these birds are: the beaks are visibly strong and the talons are tough as metal and as large as human palms. It can easily lift away a fox or a goat with very little effort.
During a hunt, the falconer usually goes up a hill for a better view, and releases the eagle to catch and bring back the prey. A successful hunt is rewarded with a piece of meat that the bird devours eagerly. It’s a spectacle to watch the bird swoop in on a prey at the blink of an eye.