We should train our children to keep this tradition alive. This is who we are
Photographer Palani Mohan travelled to Mongolia to capture the last remaining eagle hunters on film
Orazkhan Shuinshi was sitting in a weathered armchair in his ger, bathed in soft light from a window, when I first met him. A tall man with broad shoulders and hands like sandpaper, he was sipping yak’s milk tea. It was December 2012. Winter had well and truly set in, and during the night the howling cold winds from the north had brought fresh snow to his valley near the Altai national Park in far western Mongolia, close to the borders with China and Russia. Orazkhan was known as the oldest and wisest of the men who hunt with eagles – a living legend of sorts. He had gone blind in one eye and his hearing, once keen, was poor. He hardly ate anymore, and he missed his wife, who had died a decade previously. Over the course of the next few years, as I kept returning to that part of the world, I always made a point of visiting Orazkhan. We would drink tea together and talk about eagles and the changes he had seen in his 90-plus years. I had many questions for him, and he would often ask me to stop talking and instead eat more of the meat and cheese on the table so I could stay warm. He was curious as to why I would leave my family year after year and return to the cold to ask more of these questions. He saw me as somewhat eccentric, but always indulged my enquiries and gave me his time. I told him I had an important job to do, to document the burkitshi – as the men who hunt with eagles are known in Kazakh – before they disappear, and that I needed his help.
History Of A Hard Land
The ethnic Kazakhs number around 100,000 and are the largest minority in Mongolia. Separated from their one-time homeland by shifting borders, they are now mostly settled in the mountainous Bayan-Ölgii province in the country’s far western reaches. Kazakh nomads have been grazing their livestock near the Altai Mountains for many hundreds of years. After the Mongolian Revolution of 1921, a permanent border was established, partitioning Mongolia from China and Russia, and so the Kazakh herdsmen were given an accidental home within Mongolia. The Kazakhs are a different people from the Mongols in many ways. They look, speak and dress differently, and they pray to different gods, the Mongols being largely Tibetan Buddhist and the Kazakhs predominantly Sunni Muslims. Crucially, however, the Kazakhs and Mongols share a nomadic heritage.
Only the toughest survive here; there is no place for the weak or the maimed. It’s sad to think that after hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years the Burkitshi are slowly dying out. There are no more than 50 to 60 of the ‘true’ hunters left, and each winter claims a few more. The young choose the easier life in the cities far away. Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, is one of the most polluted cities on Earth, but it is where most of the hunters’ children end up, looking for better opportunities. Orazkhan tells his story in his own words:
“Golden eagles are like no other bird. 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. I’ve had more than 20 eagles in my life. Last year I released my last eagle back into the mountains. It was as if a member of my family had left. I think about what that eagle is doing; if she’s safe, and whether she can find food and make a nest. Have her hunts been successful? Sometimes I dream about these things. This is a hard land, a big land with very few people and a lot of space. The environment has changed since my childhood. The winters used to be a lot colder and longer, and there are fewer eagles now making their nests around these parts. Maybe they migrated to somewhere else. This tradition is dying, and there are fewer and fewer old hunters these days. You can have an eagle, but that doesn’t make you a hunter. In the old days, if you didn’t have an eagle next to your home you weren’t a real man. The eagles are just like us: they get smaller as they get older, but also become wiser. Just like us, they learn from the past and they remember – mountains, valleys and the shape of the land. After we train them, they will not escape from us. But after many seasons have passed, we should not wait until they die. We should let them go back to the wild to live out their lives. Our traditions have not totally disappeared, but we are the last of the true eaglehunters. The young generation today aren’t interested, and there are many things that keep them busy, such as earning money and listening to music. They seem to like going to the capital. We should train our children to keep this tradition alive. This is who we are.”