Wing commanders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


There are three things a real man should have: a fast horse, a hound and a golden eagle,' according to an ancient Kazakh proverb. Photographer Palani Mohan had a slow jeep, a malfunctioning camera and a golden vision of capturing one of the world's most unique relationships between man and beast.

With the depths of unforgiving winter approaching, in temperatures that plummeted to below minus-35 degrees Celsius at night, Mohan made his way across the Mongolian steppes to the far-flung western border region of Olgii, where the last of Mongolia's Kazakh nomads still hunt the corsac fox using golden eagles. The fox's fur is sold and used to make coats and its meat is eaten.

He would not be the first or last photographer to go in search of these frost-bitten men, with their wise, lined faces, fox-fur hats and fearsome winged hunting machines mounted upon gloved arms. But in this series of black and white portraits, which largely eschew the action of the hunt in favour of exploring the bond between hunter and raptor, the posed formality of the portraits lends an incongruity that adds to their otherworldly quality.

'This was without a doubt the biggest challenge and the most intense place I've ever faced as a photographer,' the Indian-born, Hong Kong-based Mohan says. 'There is a festival once a year in summer where these guys bring their birds and pose with tourists, but I wanted to really spend time with them, live with them in winter. That's when they hunt because that's when the fox has its thick winter coat and its reddish fur can be spotted easily by the eagles against the snow cover.'

Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet at Olgii. Kazakh nomads have roamed the steppes since the days of Genghis Khan and their ability to hunt with eagles was remarked upon by Marco Polo. The advance of the Russian empire into Kazakhstan two centuries ago swelled their ranks and when the modern borders were drawn, the Kazakhs found themselves cut off from their homeland and left with little choice but to settle on the arid, wind-scoured plains and foothills of the Altai mountain range of western Mongolia.

Mohan visited the homes of nine hunters, hundreds of kilometres apart, and lived with several of them for days at a time.

'For a photographer, the conditions were pretty unforgiving,' he says. 'It's so cold that your batteries freeze up, so you have to sleep with them under your arms to warm them up. The camera lenses get condensation, you're bundled up in so many layers that you are moving like you're underwater, and your fingers are constantly numb because you can't shoot with thick gloves on.'

He slept in the hunters' crude stone homes, on a bed of planks under stinking yak pelts while yak dung burned in the fireplace, drying horsemeat festooned the rafters and hooded eagles stood frozen on their perches.

'They keep the birds hooded when they're not hunting,' he explains. 'Their instincts are so fine-honed that they will attack anything that moves. In one house, an eagle's hood fell off and it attacked and killed the family cat before anyone even realised what had happened.'

The golden eagle is a perfect predator, capable of killing a wolf, with a wingspan of nearly two metres, beaks built to rend flesh and talons that kill prey instantly by piercing the heart.

'They are the most amazing things,' says Mohan. 'They look noble, distinguished, just like their masters. And the eyes. Their eyesight is amazing, exponentially better than a human's and they seem to burn with a real intelligence and ferocity.'

It was the bond between hunter and eagle that fascinated the photographer. 'They all had stories about how they loved their birds more than their wives. There's even a proverb that if a hunter's father dies on the day the snow starts to fall, the hunter won't be at the funeral because he'll be up in the hills with his eagle. They trap the birds when they are still young and just learning to hunt, using nets and meat for bait. And they let them go back into the wild after 10 or 15 hunting seasons, because they feel the bird has done its job and earned its freedom.'

One of Mohan's hosts, Ongar Kanbay, 51, is a local legend, with an eagle that has killed 102 foxes in three years. Another, Oraz Khan, 92, has just gone blind and recently ceased hunting, having owned 15 eagles over a 60-year career.

The stout but wizened sage shared his wisdom over fireside chats and meals of horsemeat. Losing one's sight after a lifetime of profiting from the sharpest eyes on the planet might seem like karmic payback or a cosmic joke, but the hunter was in good humour and has no regrets.

'The golden eagle is like no other bird,' Khan told Mohan. 'They want to be with you. They love you. And they love to kill for you. When the time comes to let them go, it's the hardest thing a man can ever do.'