Of eagles and goats

In 1921, the borders between Russia, China and Mongolia were suddenly drawn on the map and literally « on » the Kazakh communities living in the Altay areas. In China and Russia, these fringes of Kazakh populations were assimilated while in Kazakhstan, the nomadic culture embraced the communist modernity, pushing its decline. In Mongolia, the Kazakh families originating from China remained preserved, becoming a sort of living conservatory of their culture that was fading in the neighbour countries and Kazakstan itself. With Turkish heritage, Persian influences, muslim religion, strong nomadic traditions and modern expectations, the Kazakh in Mongolia are a cultural mix like most of the people of Central Asia.

The rural exodus has been affecting them like in the rest of the country, especially after 1990 when the country left communism, introducing in 1992 a new constitution with a multiparty system and market economy. This political and economical change reduced drastically the incomes from herding, putting under pressure their nomadic practices and simple things like access to education (more than 60% of nomad’s children attend boarding schools as the only possibility for schooling) and financing the purchase of fodder for the winter. The need for money pushed many herders to favour the breeding of goats for a more profitable cashmere and a revival of an ancient eagle hunting tradition for the growing flow of tourists – mostly instagrammers seeking fame.

Eagle hunting is nevertheless an ancient form of training within Kazakh communities and it is part of the traditional games testing the skills of the trainers and the quality of the relationship between a horse launched at full speed and its rider catching objects on the ground or between an eagle controlled by its trainer to kill an elusive rabbit. As the trainers say, eagle hunting is not an hunting technique but a symbolic practice of relating to the sky. During the few years (maximum 5 years before freeing the eagle) that they train their female bird, they sharpen their own perception by observing the development of the eagle’s instinct. It is similar to an initiation to new affordances, driving the trainer into becoming a better hunter for his family during the harsh winter.

With the development of touristic activities and the popularising of eagle hunting, some villages have up to 40 eagle owners with among them more and more teenage boys and girls. For them and their families, the eagle represents the extension of a cultural practice and between 10 and 30% of their yearly incomes – with cashmere wool being the central source of revenues. Next to a real pride, an intergenerational aspect and cultural perpetuation, it’s a significant opportunity to pay for the future University fees, a welcome investment to start a business in the city of Bayan Ugly or simply a necessity to supply hay for the animals or pay the bill of the hospital.

Despite the challenges of rural exodus, despite the excesses of tourism and its sole focus on eagles to the detriment of a perception of the living conditions of these rural communities, being an herder in the Altay with sheep, goats, horses, cows or camels and eventually owning an eagle, it is about what humans learn and gain when they become partners with animals – whether they are made of cashmere wool or silky feathers.

Fixer: Nur Shuakh