Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Falconer.



M
y trip to Mongolia promises to be a real memorable experience and not just because of the remoteness of the place but also because it will be to a place where the culture is so different from what I live day to day. So much of Mongolian culture...from the nomadic lifestyle to the food, to the music and to their native dress feel like throwbacks in time....a place that hasn't changed in decades.

So, it wasn't surprising to me to learn that the ancient sport (and some say, art) of falconry is alive and well in the remote mountains of western Mongolia.

Simply put, falconry is the sport of using trained raptors (birds of prey) to hunt or pursue game for humans. Unlike hunters in the US with their high powered rifles equipped with sight scopes, the Mongolia hunter has no weapon other than his magnificent trained eagle.

Falconry is a very ancient sport, dating back more than 3000 years. Although there are differences in opinion as to where the sport originated, Mongolians have been hunting with eagles for centuries.

The sport is practiced in the Western regions of Mongolia, primarily by the Kazakhs who live in the hilly regions of the Altai Mountains. Kazakh men hunt from horseback with trained Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), the largest and most powerful of raptors. Wolves, foxes, and rabbits are hunted for their fur and for the challenge they present.

Golden Eagles are the raptor of choice for the Kazahk falconers not only because of their power but also because the larger species are well suited to hunting over large open ground. However, in the world of falconry, eagles are not as widely used as other birds of prey because they are not easy to train or manage. Thus, the prominent use of the Golden Eagle in Mongolian falconry speaks highly of the skill of the Kazhak hunter.

The Golden Eagle is a magnificent raptor. It has a wingspan averaging over 2 m (7 ft) and up to 1 m (3 ft) in body length. It's this large wingspan that allows the eagle to fly great distances....soaring on air flows.

The talons of the Golden Eagle are curved and razor-sharp for catching and holding their prey.

The eagle's eyesight is especially remarkable. With vision about eight times sharper than human, they can spot a fox or rabbit up to a mile away.

To get their Golden Eagle, Kazahk hunters choose either to snatch a young chick from a nest or lure a young birds with pigeons and trap them. Usually Kazakh hunters go for female birds as they are a third heavier than males and much more aggressive. The birds are then carefully trained for hunting - they must be taught to catch the prey but releases to their handler instead of feasting on the kill themselves. Eagles can live up to 50 years but most hunters keep the birds for about 10 years and then release them back into the wild.

So as it turns out, I'm not the only non-Mongolian who's fascinated by this most ancient of Mongolian sports. In 2005, Joseph Spaid directed a documentary tiled, "Kiran over Mongolia" that tells the story of Kuma, a young Kazakh from Ulaaanbaatar who travels hundreds of miles to Mongolia'ss wild western mountains. There, he seeks a master to help him pursue his unlikely dream: to catch and train a hunting eagle, the way his people have done for millennia. I found the movie's trailer on YouTube. The scenes are set against the unusual strains of khoomi. Oh....and the word "kiran" means "golden" in Kazakh.



Early winter is considered to be the best season for hunting and in Western Mongolia, the Golden Eagle Festival is held each year in October to celebrate their traditional heritage of hunting with eagles. My trip to Mongolia will be in mid-summer so unfortunately I won't be there to witness the Golden Eagle festival. But if I'm lucky though, maybe I can still catch a falconer at hunt and to see a trained Golden Eagle close up. That would be a really, really cool experience!