Among native Mongolians, eagle hunters are some of the most highly respected in any tribe. Eagle hunting is not the art of shooting down or stoning down eagles. It’s a sacred profession whereby a person uses an eagle as a companion and helper during hunting trips. Eagles are wild with a mind of their own, right from birth. To successfully tame one to listen to your calls and whispers while chasing wolves, foxes and bears is a big deal.
14-year-old Zamanbol is one of the 10 female eagle hunters left in all of Mongolia. There are only a few small groups of natives who still keep the tradition alive, and it’s always been passed down from father to son for thousands of years. There are approximately 400 keepers scattered amongst nomadic tribes in the country, and only 10 of them are female.
Young and strong eagle hunters
The beautiful Zamanbol was captured by photographer, Leo Thomas who traveled all the way to the Altai region of Western Mongolia to learn about the incredible culture.
When Zamanbol was younger, she went hunting with her grandfather who was a popular eagle keeper in his time. He taught her the tricks of eagle whispering for successful hunting. She watched as her grandfather caught prey of different species and sizes with his precious eagle. Under her granddad’s tutelage, the girl began to hunt wolves and small prey with the eagle. She inherited her grandfather’s wizened eagle when he died, and has been training and practicing ever since.
Zamanbol belongs to the Kazakh nomadic family and is part of a generation of youths trying to keep the ancient Mongolian cultures and traditions alive in a world being overrun by technology.
Like every normal teenager in the country, she goes to school on weekdays. However, on Saturdays, clad in her traditional attire of handmade fur clothing, Zamanbol gets her horse ready, walks miles in deep-sinking snow beyond mountains to train with her brother, Barzabai, 26.
Thomas, who is the same age as Barzabai, said of the latter’s lifestyle: “While he’s living in the outdoors surrounded by family, incredible nature and animals, I’m sitting more than 60% of my time in front of a screen. A pretty basic comparison, but it made me think.”
For Zamanbol, eagle hunting is not merely a hobby but a strong legacy. “After my grandfather’s death, I wanted to continue his way,” she said to the New York Times .
Part of their training involves imbibing love and kindness, and the eagles are eventually released back into the wild after some years. Zamanbol does not hunt with the first eagle she ever had today, and she admits she was broken when she let her companion go. A lot of hunters experience deep hurt and heartbreak when it’s time to let their birds go.
“I was sad,” Zamanbol said, “but I wanted her to be free.”
Female eagles, often larger and weighing 15 pounds more than the males are the preferred choice as hunting companions. The training usually starts once a hunter picks an eaglet off its mother’s nest from cliffs high up the mountains. The pair would then form a strong bond that would last for many years. Hunters can often be found singing and cooing softly to their eagles as though they were children.
As the eagles get older, they learn the pitch of the hunter’s voices and become deeply bound to them. They are released into bushes and vegetation to scan for foxes, wolves, and other prey, and they’ll circle back when they’ve found something or at the sound of their owner’s voice. Hunting is a lot easier and more enjoyable with eagles who have some of the best eyes in the animal kingdom.
While foxes are the most common grabs, wolves are the most feared prey of all, and hunters often worry about their birds’ lives when it’s time to go wolf hunting. These animals are brutal, dangerous and fierce, and would sometimes turn their predators into prey.
To kill a wolf is to earn respect, and the young Zamanbol has earned her fair share.
A beautiful culture
In the previous century, eagle hunting almost phased out as a lot of the natives migrated from their tribes to the cities. The younger generation was almost completely modernized and there was hardly anyone to pass the culture onto. Thankfully, more youths are coming back to their roots and upholding many of the ancient cultures, and eagle hunting is one of them.
To keep the culture alive, the Altai Kazakhs hold a Golden Eagle Hunting Festival every year where eagle hunters demonstrate the strength of the bond they share with their majestic birds.
The festival is open to tourists and in 2018, over 1,000 tourists were in attendance. About 120 eagle hunters turned up to participate in the competition with their birds.
The goal is for a hunter on the ground to successfully call his bird from the top of a mountain with loud cries and bait meat on a stick. That year, only 18 birds were able to identify their owners. A winner is often chosen after a second-round and bathed with cheers from the crowd.
Since the entire world is in the computer age, the youths can’t completely ignore technology. Zamanbol often brings her friends out to her hunting trips and she loves taking selfies with her eagle to be shared on Facebook.
She’s 14, bold, strong, and unafraid to live her dreams.
- ‘At 14, She Hunts Wolves and Takes Selfies With Cherished Eagle in Mongolia‘ New York Times Hannah Reyes Morales. Published 03-02-2020