PHOTOGRAPHY

Photographer Palani Mohan on capturing the last Kazakh eagle hunters of Mongolia

Palani Mohan tells Kylie Knott about his new book, a chronicle of the nomads who hunt on horseback with trained birds of prey and their vanishing way of life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 7:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 1:15pm

If you've ever wondered how long a camera battery lasts in minus 40 degrees, ask Palani Mohan.

"My camera gear collapsed all the time … when it's minus 40 with wind chill, your batteries give up really quickly. I'd be crouched on an ice shelf waiting for the perfect light and when it came I'd stick my hand under my armpits and whip out a battery. I might have a minute before it's zapped of energy. At night I'd tape batteries to my armpits and thighs to keep them warm."

It's just one of the many stories Mohan shares about his five years photographing the last remaining Kazakh eagle hunters in the unforgiving wilds of the far west of Mongolia, a mission that started when the Australian photographer was 17 and working at The Sydney Morning Herald. "I saw this image of a man standing on a mountain holding an eagle and was like 'wow, that's amazing, where is this? I need to go there'."

In 2012 Mohan did just that. "The plan was to take portraits of the eagle hunters but when I got there I found there was a really important story to be told," says the Hong Kong-based photographer.

That story is about the golden eagles living in the high Altai mountains that reach from China through Mongolia and Kazakhstan to Russian Siberia and their close bond with the eagle hunters, known as burkitshi, who belong to the traditional nomadic clans from the country's Kazakh minority. Numbering around 100,000, the nomads have been raising livestock near the mountains for hundreds of years and the eagle hunters have been climbing the sharp peaks to capture the birds from nests in the crags. The birds are then hand fed and live with the hunter's family, at times staying in the family's ger, a traditional Mongolian hut.

"The female eagles are taken from their mother when they're about four years old. They only take the females because they're bigger, tougher - the males are really only good for one thing. At that age the eagles can survive without their mother and, more importantly, they've seen their mother hunt, they've tasted fresh meat - tasted the kill. They need that for them to become hunters."

But what Mohan also discovered was not just the almost spiritual bond between bird and man but a culture under threat. He estimates only about 60 true hunters remain in the region as younger generations head to the cities. "They aren't following in their fathers' cold and lonely footsteps - they want to wear jeans, listen to music and make money working in the city so they head to the capital Ulan Bator or to Russia or Kazakhstan." Mohan made it his mission to document the hunters' stories - an odd mission for someone who dislikes the cold, is "80 per cent vegetarian" and who can't ride a horse.

"It was all wrong for me," laughs Mohan in a noisy Sheung Wan coffee shop. "You'd start in a small village and drive for days without seeing anybody and when we [he travelled with a translator, driver and cook] did see someone - a bloke out in the snow herding animals - they'd run over to us and we'd get information that way. There's no Google or networks - it's all word of mouth. It was a long and tiresome process - everything takes time, everything slows down.

"There were times when I felt like giving up - it's easier to give up in the cold than when you're warm. And I can't ride a horse and in that part of the world, a man who can't ride a horse is like a man without balls. That's what my Kazakh driver told me - it sounds better in Kazakh."

Last month at the Asia Society in Admiralty, Mohan released his fifth book, Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs, a collection of stunning images taken during his three-week stints in the dead of winter. Shot in black and white, the sharp images capture the starkness of the landscape and the timeless appeal of the place and its people.

Some shots show cold barren landscapes and others the warm domestic life inside the ger. But it's the images of leathery-faced men - "the landscape etched in their faces" - wrapped in fox furs, their majestic birds sitting proudly on their arms, that have the biggest impact. The adult birds are big - weighing around 7kg, with eight-foot wingspans - and their beaks are built to shred flesh, their talons so sharp they can kill prey instantly by piercing the heart. When hunting in pairs, eagles can kill a wolf.

"In many ways the golden eagles have the same character as the hunters - they live in the cold and off the land. And they're solitary. There is a real connection." Nothing better portrays that connection than an image of a hunter holding an eagle on its back like a baby.

The hunters' stories relayed by Mohan also have an impact.

"Orazkhan Shuinshi, one of the main hunters in the book, is 92 years old and six foot two [1.88m] - he's somewhat of a living legend among hunters." Most hunters don't reach 50.

"He talked about the changing landscape and environment and how the winters used to be colder and longer, and how there are fewer eagles. And he's sad about the dying tradition. It's all from his words - I'm not a historian or environmentalist. I just wanted to tell their story."

Mohan says eagles can live for up to 30 years, but are only kept for 10 years before being released. "They're released back into the wild when they have earned their freedom. This is a sad time for the hunters. As Orazkhan says: 'It's the hardest thing a man can ever do.'"

It's hard to steer Mohan off topic and onto his other book projects, which include his six years travelling to 11 countries for Vanishing Giants: Elephants of Asia. He also captured the disappearing cultures of India in Hidden Faces of India and turned his lens on Hong Kong in Vivid Hong Kong and Hong Kong Life.

For Mohan, the eagle-hunting assignment has been all consuming. "This project was without doubt the hardest thing I've ever done but also the work I've loved the most."

Images from Hunting with Eagles are on show at the FCC until Nov 30.

To buy Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs, visit www.merrellpublishers.com