Members of Mongolia’s traditional nomadic clans domesticate golden eagles to hunt foxes and other animals. Many of the men talk about loving the eagles like their own children. The photographer Palani Mohan documents the bond between man and bird in the Altai mountains.
A photographer who snapped what could be the world’s only girl hunting with a golden eagle says watching her work was an amazing sight.
Most children, Asher Svidensky says, are a little intimidated by golden eagles. Kazakh boys in western Mongolia start learning how to use the huge birds to hunt for foxes and hares at the age of 13, when the eagles sit heavily on their undeveloped arms. Svidensky, a photographer and travel writer, shot five boys learning the skill - and he also photographed Ashol-Pan.
“To see her with the eagle was amazing,” he recalls. She was a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more powerful with it and a lot more at ease with it.“
The Kazakhs of the Altai mountain range in western Mongolia are the only people that hunt with golden eagles, and today there are around 400 practising falconers. Ashol-Pan, the daughter of a particularly celebrated hunter, may well be the country’s only apprentice huntress.
They hunt in winter, when the temperatures can drop to -40C (-40F). A hunt begins with days of trekking on horseback through snow to a mountain or ridge giving an excellent view of prey for miles around.
Hunters generally work in teams. After a fox is spotted, riders charge towards it to flush it into the open, and an eagle is released. If the eagle fails to make a kill, another is released.
The skill of hunting with eagles, Svidensky says, lies in harnessing an unpredictable force of nature. "You don’t really control the eagle. You can try and make her hunt an animal - and then it’s a matter of nature. What will the eagle do? Will she make it? How will you get her back afterwards?”
The eagles are not bred in captivity, but taken from nests at a young age. Female eaglets are chosen since they grow to a larger size - a large adult might be as heavy as seven kilos, with a wingspan of over 230cm. After years of service, on a spring morning, a hunter releases his mature eagle a final time, leaving a butchered sheep on the mountain as a farewell present. “That’s how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations”, Svidensky says.
He describes Ashol-Pan as a smiling, sweet and shy girl. His photographs of her engaging in what has been a male activity for around 2,000 years say something about Mongolia in the 21st Century.
The herders of Mongolia are some of the last remaining nomadic people in existence. With time, the encroaching effect of globalisation slowly erodes their ancient traditions. However life goes on and certain tasks such as milking the cows, feeding the animals, collecting water and preparing meals must still be done on a daily basis. These photographs are the culmination of a single 24-hour period I spent in and around the Ger (Yurt) of Terbishu (31), Otgoo (30), their son Samand (1) and his Grandfather Battur (55) - a hardworking family living in isolation on the vast steppes of central Mongolia. Despite our inability to verbally communicate, my short stay with the family instilled a much greater insight and appreciation for a modest life.
Unfortunately I ran out of film, but I hope to return one day and tell more of their story.
Kazakhs living in Mongoia continue to hunt with eagles today. Their falconry custom, so-call ‘horse-riding eagle falconry’, is unique in practice only with trained Golden Eagle on horseback. Their hunting target is almost limited to Red Fox or Corsac Fox. In the first week of October, 70 eagle hunters gather for the annual Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia. They use eagles to hunt foxes and hare during the cold winter months when it is easier to see the gold colored foxes against the snow