Nomadic Mongolian herders hunt with golden eagles. The tradition is special because unless your father was an eagle hunter, you cannot be one either.
There are only around 400 falconers who hunt with eagles in the entire world (there are only about a dozen in the United States), and most of them live in Mongolia. But what makes the nomadic Kazakh eagle hunters unique is that they do their hunting on horseback.
There’s no doubt that the image of a Mongolian Kazakh hunter in full traditional regalia and carrying a large golden eagle on his is her arm is pretty bad-ass impressive. The photos that photographer Joel Santos was able to take during his two years with the hunters are amazing.
Santos spent his time documenting the lives of four Kazakh families and their relationships with their eagles. It is a paternal tradition in the tribe, where your father must pass down the knowledge to his children. If your father was not an eagle hunter, neither can you be one.
But it is a tradition not only for males to receive. Aishol Pan is one of two young girls who is an eagle hunter, having received instruction from her father. When she was 13 or 14 she won the annual Golden Eagle Festival, which is a celebration of the Kazakh lifestyle, with hunting competitions, racing, traditional costumes and more.
“Let me say that the hunting process is extremely respectful in every way: the better the eagle is at hunting, the sooner it is returned to the wild to live its life as a free eagle,” said Santos. “The hunters only hunt what they need meat wise, so it’s not a kind of sport.”
He added, “All in all, the code of honour is amazing and has an inherent respect for age, nature and order.”
Only female eagles are caught and trained by the hunters, because of their larger size, and greater agility and focus. The eagles are released back into the wild when they reach 10 years of age – half of their life span.
“It’s like time travelling to a period where we were all in tune with nature, keeping the balance, upholding the father-to-son knowledge sharing,” said Santos. “That still exists, but it’s rare. Thus it is precious to see.”
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