Deep in the rugged Altai mountains of western Mongolia, Kazakh men have for centuries developed and nurtured a special bond with golden eagles, training the birds to hunt foxes and other small animals. As more and more families migrate from the countryside to urban areas, the ancient practice of eagle hunting provides some families with an additional source of income from the visitors who pay to see the iconic birds in action. “We keep eagles mostly because it’s a traditional sport,” says Alaknkush, an eagle hunter, animal herder and father of two. “All Kazakhs love to train eagles. We have a strong relationship – I look after her as if she was a baby.”
A tradition usually passed from father to son, training and taking care of golden eagles is just one aspect of an animal herder’s life. From training horses to milking yaks and butchering meat, the daily demands of a traditional herding family’s life are many and leave little time for education or the pursuit of personal ambitions away from home. A physically demanding and arduous lifestyle, parents often send their children to boarding school in towns and cities, sometimes far from home, in the hope that their children will secure a more comfortable future.
Despite having lived his whole life in the mountains, Alankush hopes for a different future for his children. “I don’t have an education and I’m not young,” he says. “If I was young maybe I’d go to Ulgii (the provincial capital) to work, but for me it’s better to stay in the countryside. If I had a chance with education I would go to the city, countryside life is very hard, especially for children. That’s why I send my children to school. If they finish University I hope they’ll find jobs in the city.”