We pull up by the side of the windswept road in the heart of Kyrgyzstan. And there, by the roadside, is the eagle hunter. Dressed in traditional clothing, tall white felt hat sitting proudly on his head, he smiles as he holds his arm outstretched, a hooded golden eagle perched on the leather gauntlet of his right hand.
We have come to watch a demonstration of a hunting style that goes back into the mists of time. Here in the heartland of Central Asia, among the mountains that make up most of Kyrgyzstan, hunting with eagles has long been the most effective way of trapping animals for food. The eagles are trained from a young age to swoop and kill their prey but not eat it, knowing that the reward for their efforts will be a fresh piece of meat which they don’t need to shred from the carcass themselves. The birds work for around 4 years before being released back into the wild. Occasionally they will return to visit their former owner, but usually they are never seen again.
The eagle hunter has brought with him a child, a neighbour’s son around 10 years of age who works with him as he demonstrates his skills. When we ask the boy, he tells us that he, too, dreams of becoming an eagle hunter. For the time being, he helps to manage the huge birds, and drags a piece of fur for our eagle to “kill” in this demonstration in which we, the squeamish westerners, don’t want to see an animal being killed. It’s a foreign response; if the eagle had killed a live animal, it wouldn’t have gone to waste.
The hunter demonstrates his skills by climbing to the top of the nearest hill with the eagle perched on his hand. Removing the bird’s hood to reveal the visual stimuli of the world around it, he allows the eagle to scan the horizon and spot the boy with the fur “animal”, waiting to run at the bottom of the hill. As the eagle is released, it swoops downwards and the child starts to move, gathering speed across the grassland. Gliding gracefully and swiftly, the eagle lands on its prey, talons extended, and it is easy to imagine this to be a rabbit or other small creature, trapped helplessly as the eagle ends its life. The bird gnaws happily on the scrap of fur as it waits for its owner to arrive with the real prize, a piece of meat which it holds in its claws as it shreds and chews, blood running down the gauntlet.
Demonstration over, we are able to take turns holding the eagle. The huge bird is heavy, but still, and seems unperturbed by the attention. Stroking the feathers of its chest, I look up to see a huge, razor-sharp beak just a few inches from my face. The bird could harm me, but it won’t. It has been too well trained.
I visited Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2017 with Exodus Travels. Eagle hunting is still practised today, and tourist visits are a welcome source of additional revenue for local people, helping to maintain the strong traditions of the region.