Photo Essay: The Eagle Hunters of Mongolia
For centuries, Mongolia’s semi-nomadic tribes have joined forces with semi-domesticated eagles to hunt small prey. But how much longer can this ancient food tradition survive?
Photographs by Cedric Angeles and Brown W. Cannon III
Humans have enlisted animals in the search for sustenance since the first mellow wolves stumbled upon our settlements thousands of years ago, then decided to stick around. And while some of these working relationships endure—horses still plow fields, pigs sniff out truffles, shepherds and pointers and hounds aid with herding or hunting—we now tend to prefer our pork on a plate and our pets on a leash. But in the rugged Altai Mountains of far-western Mongolia, a bond between man and bird defies total domestication. Amid this harsh, craggy landscape, hunters rely on golden eagles to find and kill rabbits, foxes, and other small game.
The hunters trap female eagles (whose eight-foot wingspans make them far more effective partners than the smaller males) before they reach breeding age, and build a rapport by rewarding requested tasks with food. Once a bird’s hunting career comes to an end—after a few years or a decade, depending on the raptor’s skill—she’s released back into the wild to find a mate and live out the rest of her days.
Even in this remote backcountry, however, the intimate interspecies partnership faces extinction due to increasing modernization. The Golden Eagle Festival, held in the city of Ulgii for the past 16 years, attempts to preserve Mongolia’s dying falconry traditions through a series of hunting competitions. Last fall, photographers Cedric Angeles and Brown W. Cannon III accompanied a group of Kazakhs as they traveled to Ulgii on horseback for the event, sleeping in yurts (called gers) along the 120-mile journey. “The connection the men have with the eagles is as significant as their relationships with people,” Cannon says. “Their worlds revolve around these birds.”