Revival of hunting with eagles gathers pace in Mongolia as festivals draw more tourists to witness ancient sport
The 6,000-year-old tradition of eagle hunting among Mongolia’s Kazakh minority had almost died out 20 years ago. The launch of festivals gave it a new lease of life, and a recent film about the sport raised its international profile
Dressed warmly in fox fur coats and fur hats, the hunters arrive on horseback, carrying the national flag, and ride to the top of a snow-covered hill. They number more than 20, the youngest aged 14, the oldest 86. One by one they descend and stand inside one of two rings marked out on the frozen ground. From here, they call out to their eagles.
The majestic birds take wing on the hilltop, soar across the blue sky, and swoop down to land on their owner’s arm. Landing in the red ring gets a higher score, and the fewer times the hunters have to call out to their birds the better.
It’s an exhilarating spectacle for the more than 3,000 people who came to witness it.
Among them is American Cora Nichols, 39, who has been living in Mongolia for 18 months and who is there with her two children. “I came here because the eagle hunters are very famous, and I haven’t experienced anything similar to this,” she says.
The eagle hunters are grateful for all the attention. “Before people came to see our traditional way of life there weren’t many eagle hunters,” says Boshai Dalaikhan, 56, a soft-spoken, weather-beaten eagle hunter and herder. “Then there were only a few old hunters. But now, thanks to tourism more young people are becoming eagle hunters.”
Indeed, by the end of the last century the tradition, which dates back 6,000 years, of training golden eagles to hunt foxes, rabbits, marmots and other small prey, was in danger of dying out among the Kazakh people of remote western Mongolia’s Altai Mountains.
Fewer than 80 eagle hunters were left.
In 2000, the last remaining hunters gathered and held a festival to inspire young Kazakhs to take up eagle hunting. The festival in Bayan-Ulgiy province was a huge success. Not only did it revive the tradition, but it also attracted people from all over the world to see the spectacle.
The event is held each October in the Altai Mountains, and has drawn visitors including Hollywood actress Michelle Rodriguez – despite the area’s remoteness. It takes three to four days to reach Bayan-Ulgiy from Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, and the prices of flights to the nearest airport from the capital soar when the festival is on.
The event Nichols witnessed and hunter Boshai Dalaikhan, the Spring Golden Eagle Festival, was organised by the Ulan Bator City Tourism Board and held not far from the capital, making it far more accessible to visitors and Mongolians. Held earlier this week and on a smaller scale than the October festival, it was the 11th staging of the event.
This year the board promoted the two-day festival heavily as part of an ongoing campaign to attract tourists to Mongolia during the winter months, despite harsh temperatures that can drop to as low as minus 45 degrees Celsius (minus 49 Fahrenheit).
Both this and the Bayan-Ulgiy festival have seen an almost 40 per cent rise in visitors since the 2016 release of The Eagle Huntress, a documentary about a teenage girl who trains to become the first eagle huntress – the skill was previously only passed down to the boys in Kazakh families.
“I have never seen so many eagles up close,” says Xui Lai Chen, 52, a Chinese businessman living in Mongolia who attended this week's festival. “This made me think about taking my friends to the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgiy. But I wonder if it will be better than this.”
Today there are more than 400 golden eagle hunters in Western Mongolia, according to the tourism board. And, thanks to Aisholpan, the star of the The Eagle Huntress, more Kazakh girls are becoming eagle hunters. There were two other young eagle huntresses present at the festival, though neither of them made it to the last round of the eagle calling competition.
Dashdejid Temuujin, 58, a member of the Ulan Bator city tourism board and organiser of the festival, says the publicity has paid off this year. “This year we see more foreigners – not only those who live here, but also travellers coming to Mongolia just to see this event,” he says.
The board hopes to expand the Spring Golden Eagle Festival further next year. “And this year it is also special because we were able to fly in the eagle hunters and their eagles. This helped lower their travel time – so we avoided the eagles getting sick or injured on the road.”
Getting there: Mongolian Airlines fly direct from Hong Kong to Ulan Bator, from about HK$4,400 return.