Lord of the Eagles
Words and shots by Philip Iglauer
Decades of communist rule nearly wiped out the ancient art of hunting with eagles when Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but now the nomadic tradition is making a comeback.
Vladimir Zemblevsky gestured northeast to a vantage point about half a kilometer uphill: “We’ll walk from here to high ground … there.”
Vlad had been an outdoorsman his entire life, dedicating the last 30 years to the Kazakh tradition of hunting with eagles. Although he didn’t look the part of the stereotypical, National Geographic mounted nomad of Central Asia, Vlad was every bit a “berkutchi,” Kazakh for a falconer who uses eagles for hunting.
He brought two golden eagles with him — Lion and Sadak (a Kazakh word that means arrow) — in his battered white Russian-made Lada Niva. He takes his birds out three or four times a week for training.
It was a blessed morning on the Eurasian steppe at just 15 degrees below zero. A low December sun cautiously peered out from behind breaking cloud cover as the 55-year-old Ukrainian climbed up the hill. A broad easy smile came across his scruffy moustache as a hooded raptor adjusted its perch on his thick leather gauntlet.
We stood just two hours outside the capital city of Astana, but the immensity of this country and the vast emptiness of the wind-swept steppe was palpable.
‘Lord of the Birds’
The eagle must remain hooded until game is spotted. When the hood is removed, the peregrine instantly targets its quarry. That’s when Vlad launches Sadak into the air in pursuit of a rabbit dashing across the snow-covered landscape.
One of the world’s largest birds of prey, a golden eagle can swoop on an animal as large as a wolf, reaching speeds of 120 mph in its initial strike. With a wingspan of up to eight feet, these formidable raptors weigh up to 22 pounds. Its talons can exert pressure upwards of 200 pounds per square inch, allowing it to hold down prey while ripping into it with a razor-sharp hooked beak.
It is for this reason that Kazakhs refer to the golden eagle as quesbegi, “lord of the birds.”
The female golden eagle is most prized, as it is larger and more aggressive than its male counterpart. That’s true, Vlad says, adding male eagles like Sadak and Lion are more receptive to training.
It shows. Sadak makes a gentle half circle toward the rabbit desperate to escape before swooping down for the kill.
If a berkutchi needs the pelt of a fox or sable then, once a kill has been made, he goes to meet his eagle with some prepared meat in his side pouch. The eagle only surrenders its prey after the berkutchi offers it some of the prepared meat.
Tame and train
One of the highest expressions of Kazakh culture is the ancient art of hunting with a golden eagle, Vlad says.
“Hunting with a golden eagle is an art. A person has to be nurturing and very patient with a large, wild animal like an eagle. That’s why there are so few berkutchi.” There are just 70 officially recognized berkutchi nationwide.
The eagles are taken from their nests when they are fledglings and before they are ready to fly. They are fed ground squirrel and marmot.
Over time the berkutchi will gain the trust of the eagle, and it is only then that the eagle hunter can begin years of training. Eventually, a strong and intimate bond is formed between eagle and berkutchi.
Vlad obtained his first golden eagle in 1985. Now he is focused on training Lion and Sadak, the two young male eagles. The life-long outdoorsman has not only earned the trust of his eagles, but also of the community of berkutchi. He has been executive director of the National Berkutchi Federation of Kazakhstan since 2005, when the group was founded.
Oil wealth and sprawling high rises of glass and steel have spurred a sense of pride among Kazakhs in preserving their traditions.
“Once when famine struck Kazakhstan, a single berkutchi provided food for the entire village, as well as foxes for fur,” Vlad said.
For example, the exploits of a berkutchi named Massip Aga was revived recently for his role during World War 2 when famine threatened the village of Kokshetau. An annual berkutchi competition is named after this village.
In addition to eagle hunting competitions, seven other traditional sports are now celebrated in Kazakhstan, such as Kokpar, an aggressive Central Asian cousin of polo, only this game is played with a goat carcass.
At first blush the sport might appear peculiar to a Western observer, but kokpar and Kazakhstan’s other equestrian traditions celebrate their fierce spirit of independence and the undulating Eurasian steppe.
Other games include Audaryspak, wrestling from horseback; zhambaly atu, horseback archery; baiga, a long-distance horse race; and tenge alu, a game in which riders compete to retrieve a small sack from the ground.
The government promotes eight traditional sports with annual competitions and award ceremonies organized by Kazakhstan’s Association of National Sports Federations.
Though celebrated, the eagle population is far from safe. Kazakhstan has become the wealthiest of the Central Asian nations. But rapid development and industrial agriculture threaten the eagles.
Vlad says “90 percent of rural areas” are now being utilized, putting the bird’s well being into conflict with new developments. “In the wild, one eagle requires 30 kilometers of open range to remain healthy.”
During the Soviet period, development was haphazard and Russian combines were not so efficient, he says. Wild plants and animals, including foxes and rats, could cohabit with human settlements and farms. This supported the eagle population.
But now, technology and farming methods are more scientific. “German and American farm equipment is much more efficient.”
Fields are larger and cultivation is more efficient. Wild plants and animals such as prairie rats, hares and foxes cannot cohabit with farmers. This inadvertently threatens eagle populations.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture is trying to preserve eagles by better managing the country’s eagle population. With earthy pragmatism Vlad acknowledges that scientific wildlife management could best protect Kazakhstan’s eagles and its ancient traditions.
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