Deep in the unforgiving wilds of far western Mongolia, the last remaining Kazakh eagle hunters harness a powerful force of nature.
The burkitshi, as they are known in Kazakh, are proud men whose faces reveal the harshness of the beautifully barren landscape they call home.
They have an extraordinary bond with the golden eagle, which to them represents the wind, the open space, the isolation and the freedom found at the edge of the world.
Australian photographer Palani Mohan has spent years documenting the noble hunters, culminating in a book available now from Merrell Publishers. Mohan says only 60 eagle hunters remain, and fears the ancient tradition could disappear within 20 years.
A dying breed
Ethnic Kazakhs number around 100,000 and are the largest minority in Mongolia. They are mostly settled around the nation’s desolate far west, around the Altai mountain range, which stretches from China through Mongolia and Kazakhstan to Russian Siberia.
It is a vast and unforgiving place to call home, where the winter temperature plummets to a bitter -40 degrees Celsius. This is where Mohan found the eagle hunters.
“You need to go deep into the wild to find the real hunters. They don’t normally like to bring their birds into a very crowded environment, because a lot of the time the birds have heart attacks because they’re not used to the noise and the car horns and the people and the sirens, and so on,” Mohan says.
During the long winters, the eagle hunters leave their homes and head into the mountains on horseback to hunt foxes – an ancient tradition said to stretch back as far as 940AD.
Some estimates put the number of remaining burkitshi at 250, but Mohan says most of those are “men with eagles posing for tourists”.
“There are about 60 of the true hunters left, and each winter claims a few more because winters are incredibly brutal. And they’re getting old, and every winter about two of them die,” he says.
“It’s important for people not to forget about people like these eagle hunters on the edge of the world.”
It is not just the bitter cold threatening to wipe out the eagle hunters.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of teenagers, men and women, and they want to wear jeans and go into town and listen to music and earn money. The eagle hunting is a lonely, cold, old way of living and like all teenagers they want the new modern thing,” Mohan says.
“Ulaanbaatar, the capital, is a very long way away but that’s where a lot of people head. People are going to Russia or Kazakhstan.”
A spiritual bond
There is a Kazakh proverb that if an eagle hunter’s father dies on the day the snow starts to fall, the hunter will miss the funeral because he will be up in the hills with his eagle.
Mohan says all of the hunters he met had stories about how they loved their birds more than their wives. The hunters see themselves in the eagle: powerful and proud.
There are no tall trees in these regions, so golden eagles build their nests high on rock faces.
Mohan says the fascinating bond between hunter and eagle begins the second the young eagle, about four years old, is stolen from its nest by hunters.
“The bond is created from the time that they steal the eaglet from its mother, right through to the day they let it go,” he says.
“They spend so much time with these birds, it almost takes a spiritual quality.”
The first bricks of the bond are the hand-feeding of the eaglet, which builds trust between man and animal. In a hunter’s eyes, the eagle is like a child, and it does not fly away during the hunt because it feels part of a family.
“I took a picture of an eagle on its back, it’s upside down like a baby. I think that’s a special moment because these eagles are 80 per cent wild birds, and even though they live outside the gers (traditional felt-lined tents), they’re hunting birds,” Mohan says.
“For an eagle to completely lie on its back is not a natural thing to do. I’ve only seen it twice, and I asked one of the guys ‘why does it let you do this?’
“He looked at me and he told me, ‘because it loves me’, and I thought that was beautiful, because the eagle completely trusts him.”
During the long winters, the eagle hunters leave their homes and head into the mountains on horseback. Their eagles — huge birds with a wingspan of up to eight feet and weighing up to eight kilograms — perch on their arm.
“Almost all the hunting takes place during the winter months. You can see the foxes’ and wolves’ footsteps on the snow, and when they run there is nowhere for them to hide, because it’s a snow cover,” Mohan says.
“When they want to go hunting they literally climb on top of a huge mountain, and they stand on top of a rock, and they look down. Right down below, another hunter would go down and make some noise and chase the foxes out of the hole.”
The hunter at the top of the mountain then takes the hood off the eagle, which looks down and sees its prey for the first time.
“As the foxes are running through, the eagle sees the fox as a small speck from the top of a mountain,” Mohan says.
“It sits and waits, and waits, and waits. No-one talks, it’s just the wind. And when the eagle is ready it lifts a wing, and with one flap just shoots down like a bullet, and within seconds the whole thing is finished — the eagle has got the fox by its neck and the hunter comes down and finishes it off.”
Mohan says the incredible power of the eagle must be seen — or felt — to be believed.
“It is just amazing the first time the eagle flaps the wing, takes off,” he says.
“One time I was very close to it, lying underneath it, wanting to get a photograph of it flying over my head. And the gust of wind it created was so strong it pushed me off my balance — and I’m 80-something kilos, and I came sort of two steps from rolling down the side of the mountain, with one of the camera bodies rolling down the hill.”
The oldest burkitshi
Orazhkan Shuinshi is described as the oldest and wisest of the eagle hunters — a “living legend” in Mohan’s eyes.
“He’s 92, he’s blind, he cant hear any more, and he’s had 20 eagles in his life. He’s a real wise man,” he says.
Mohan says he has spent a lot of time talking to Shuinshi at his home near the Altai national park in far western Mongolia.
“He talks about how they are the last of the eagle hunters, and when they’re gone, the tradition will disappear,” Mohan says.
“He says there will always be men holding eagles, because it’s cool to do – people get dressed up in fur and hats and hold an eagle, and tourists will come and pay a few dollars and take a photo of them, but they’re not true eagle hunters.
“And he feels that in a matter of a generation, a 1,000-year-old tradition will be gone.”
After several years of hunting, eagles are released back in to the wild to breed — ensuring the survival of the species — and live out their final years in freedom.
Shuinshi told Mohan letting an eagle go is the “hardest thing a man can ever do”.
“Last year I released my last eagle back into the mountains — it was like a member of your family has gone. I think about what that eagle is doing. If she’s safe and whether she can find food and make a nest. Have her hunts been successful? Sometimes I dream about these things,” the eagle hunter told Mohan.
“The golden eagle is like no other bird. They want to be with you. They love you. And they love to kill for you.
“The eagle is a holy bird. Treat them as your child. Love them and respect them. If you do this they will give everything back to you.”
Working in Hell
Mohan, who was born in India and grew up in Australia, cut his teeth as a cadet with the Sydney Morning Herald. It was then that he first saw a photograph of an eagle hunter. Fast forward several years and he set out to photograph every remaining Kazakh eagle hunter.
“At first it’s cold and there’s no-one there, and it’s very desolate. Eventually after many days of asking people you find one,” he says.
“One eagle hunter would take me to another eagle hunter, and so it goes. But sometimes you have to drive for a couple of days to find the eagle hunter.”
He thinks he has fulfilled his dream of “finding them all”, though admits “you can never be sure”.
Mohan found the solitude and space of Mongolia very affecting, but that was not the only challenge.
“I hate the cold, and I am mainly vegetarian, so I was all wrong for this job. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do physically, and professionally,” he says.
“It is -40 degrees, it’s Hell on Earth. My eyes were constantly watering, which in turn would freeze, and it’s very painful.
“And my camera gear completely collapses. Batteries have a real issue with the cold. I used to go to sleep with the batteries taped to my armpits and other warm parts of my bodies, just to keep it warm.
“And when I needed to shoot I would stick my hands down my shirt and rip out the battery, and it would have hopefully a couple of minutes before the battery completely drained.
“And its very difficult to work with six pairs of thermal stuff on, and big jackets on, so it’s hard work. It’s very difficult to operate gears and buttons and cameras and so on.”
But he says the pain was worth it if his photos help people remember “people like these eagle hunters on the edge of the world”.
They may not be there much longer.
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