A 60 Minutes piece from last year, republished this week online, caught my eye as I was looking for hunting-related news stories for this month’s #HUNT365. The feature was about (how cool is this): Mongolian eagle hunters.
First, a little disambiguation is in order. These aren’t men who hunt birds of prey, rather these are men and women — as it turns out, at least one Oklahoma woman is embracing this ancient and near-extinct practice — who hunt with golden eagles.
The tradition of eagle hunting survives thanks to the Burkitshi, a small nomadic community that roams the almost inhospitable terrain of the Altai Mountains in Central Asia.
Estimates suggest that there are about 60 eagle hunters left in the world. And that number continues to dwindle as youngsters just don’t seem to be up for the challenge anymore — and it is a challenge, by the way.
Young people “want only to be inside, in the warm, and they keep their eagles just for festivals and treat them as pets,” 93-year-old eagle hunter Orazkhan Shuinshi told The New Yorker, which also covered the topic in 2015.
“The people are lazy and that makes the eagles lazy,” he continued. “Eagles are wild fighting birds. They are not something to hang on the wall like a carpet.”
Sure, golden eagles are already awesome hunters with their keen eyesight (10 times sharper than humans), seven-foot wingspan and razor-sharp talons. So, one doesn’t need to teach ‘em to hunt per se. What these raptors need to learn is how to hunt as a team with a human, often on horseback, and that is no small feat.
To start, the Burkitshi need to snatch a female eaglet from a nest which, because there are few trees in the mountains, is usually perched in a precarious position on a high, rocky cliff.
The hunter must ascend sheer rock walls with nothing but an old rope around his waist — I didn’t see any modern climbing gear in the video: no harness, crampons or carabiners — and a “brave heart,” as the one hunter put it.
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A female eaglet is preferred because they are larger and stronger than the male eagles. An adult female can takedown a full-size fox whereas an adult male can only deliver smaller game such as mice and marmots.
One must care for their eaglet like a baby; keeping it in a warm, secure place during the frigid winters were temps plummet to -40 degrees F. Over time, the hunter will develop a strong bond with his bird.
All in all, it takes about five years before one earns the title of eagle hunter. That’s a big commitment. But for the elders, it seems to be totally worth it.
“I can’t describe how fun it is to go out hunting. All unpleasant things disappear,” said the one eagle hunter in an ABC News report, who was hoping his son would learn the ropes before he went off to college in the modern world.
What’s also fascinating is that after a 4 to 10-year stint as a hunting partner, the Burkitshi reward their eagles by releasing them back out into the wild so that they may reproduce and live out the rest of their days as a… free bird.
After watching the brief 60 Minutes segment (embedded above), I quickly went down the rabbit hole and watched other videos online that covered the topic in greater depth.
The one I’ve embedded below is probably the most comprehensive, although not the best video quality. Check it out if you have time. Three eagles take down a fox at around the 16:00 minute mark.
Watching these raptors in action makes one realize that while a modern fox hunter has an advantage with a scoped rifle or crossbow, it still doesn’t compare to that of seasoned Kazakh and his golden eagle.