Golden Eagle Festival

THE practice of eagle hunting, also known as falconry (the term for hunting with any raptor), is a traditional form of hunting that originated among nomadic people on the steppes of Central Asia thousands of years ago before spreading to other countries and peoples around the world. The tradition is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. In Mongolia, there are about 400 remaining ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters, most in Bayan-Ölgii province. Nestled between the Chinese and Russian borders just east of Kazakhstan, this partly forested region of the Altai mountains is recognized nationally as a critical natural habitat area. Here, Kazakh nomads use hunting birds, Golden Eagles, to catch foxes in winter and they turn the pelts into hats or other pieces of warm clothing that historically were traded for food and other goods.

SINCE 2000, an annual festival and competition to celebrate and maintain the tradition of eagle hunting has been held on the first weekend in October just outside Ölgii, the provincial capital of Bayan-Ölgii. It draws eagle hunters from nearby areas and attracts a growing contingent of tourists and travellers from around the world. Over two days in 2018 around 70 festival entrants competed in various events in a large outside arena and I was fortunate to be there to photograph the occasion. I hope these images convey the story of a truly interesting cultural festival in a fascinating part of the world.

Eagle hunters gather on the opening morning in a grand parade as the crowd builds around the arena.

The eagles take flight from a handler on the rocky outcrop above the arena in response to calls from its owner far below. Depending on which circle the hunter is in when the eagle lands on their arm or on an animal carcass dragged behind the horse, determines their score, i.e. six, eight, or 10, the maximum amount of points. Circle 10 is the farthest away from the hill where the eagles are released; therefore, it requires the hunter to have a sharper call to reach their bird, and it takes the bird a greater amount of time to reach its hunter. The game is timed, so hunters aiming for Circle 10 need to have a fast bird.

While the hunters tested their speed, agility, and accuracy working with the eagle, the tourists, numbering into the hundreds, seemingly competed for photos!

After the first event there was a crowd of hunters with their eagles surrounding the judges table anxious to learn the final scores!

OTHER events included traditional Kazakh games like Kokpar - a tug of war with a decapitated goat carcass between two riders on horseback - and Kumis Alu which involved picking up a coin wrapped in a cloth off the ground while riding on the back of a galloping horse. Neither was a game for the faint of heart!

Local vendors hawked handmade Kazakh wares like felt seat cushions and purses with traditional stitching, as well as decorative wall hangings, eagle hunting accessories, and other souvenirs.

A few years ago, a young woman named Aisholpan made history as the first female to compete at the festival. She won the “Best Horse and Equipment” prize that year and was the subject of a popular documentary called ‘The Eagle Huntress’. Now, other young women like this hunter at the 2018 festival are following in Aisholpan’s footsteps.

Hunters keep their eagles' eyes covered by a small leather hood, or tomagha, to pacify them when not training or hunting.

Each year the festival attracts more visitors and journalists eager to learn about the hunters and their traditional way of life.

ANDREW PEACOCK is a widely published #adventuretravel photographer. Find out more at Instagram Facebook #travel #travelphotography #mongolia #traditionalfestival #goexplore #placestogo #places #animalkingdom