“It’s good, yes? It’s veeeery good!” Orisbai Shatirbai laughs giddily, as Hiran, his five-year-old golden eagle, perches over the large fox it has just caught on the Mongolian steppe.
Seventy-three-year-old Shatirbai was six or seven when his father first taught him to hunt with an eagle. By 15 he was doing it alone. He’s passed the knowledge on to his own sons, emphasizing that this tradition is an important cultural legacy that they – as ethnic Kazakhs – are responsible for maintaining.
Eagle hunting is a seasonal pastime, only practical in the autumn and winter after the birds have molted.
Shatirbai’s family of sheepherders moves between three steppe camps in spring, summer, and early autumn. Ahead of the brutal winters, each October the family retreats from their felt yurts to a couple of houses nestled in a hillside a few miles outside of the small, western Mongolian town of Tolbo. There, Shatirbai and his wife Khama live with their youngest son and his large family. Most days, Hiran can be found hooded and on her perch outside the house. Once every two days she is fed chopped, raw meat—usually fox, rabbit or cow.
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Keith Mellnick is a freelance writer and photographer currently working in Central Asia.