We move between the undulating slopes connecting Bishkek to Issyk Kul. Mountains pierce the darkening sky in the background – the sky was looking angry. Mother nature was at her best – wild, raw beauty surrounded us. A rough pick-up truck was edged to the side of the road. On the back seat perched a hooded Golden Eagle. Something wriggled on the floor in a white hessian sack. A rabbit? I thought. Who knew, but it was alive.
Golden Eagle hunting is a practice that has taken place for centuries across Central Asia amongst nomadic populations. A practice passed down from generation to generation and often a hot topic of culture vs controversy encompasses it.
Is this exploitation of a wild animal or is it an uneducated western mentality craving to understand a culture so foreign to our own?
Here before us in the pouring rain, was an eagle hunter and his young son in training. Each had an eagle weighing in at over 5kg perched on their arm. The talons clutching around the dried cow hide to protect the hunters forearms. Unlike falcons which are bred for hunting, acquiring a Golden Eagle is a skill that can only be taught and learned from the elders before you.
To intentionally hunt and capture an eagle for the sport of tourism in this taxing environment seems a bit rich. There is not enough tourism in the country to warrant such behaviour.
With a nomadic population scattered throughout folds of mountains and jumbles of hills, food is sparse and skill is necessary to survive. The climate is harsh and the landscape is unforgiving. The golden eagles are snatched from their nests as young chicks – it is only the females who hunt, males are released back into the wilderness.
One does not aspire to become an eagle hunter, you are simply born into it. It is a matter of survival for these Kyrgyzstani nomads. From the moment you are born, you are exposed to the world of hunting and training. Bonding and perfecting your relationship with your eagle. Their piercing eyes are protected by a small hood allowing their other senses to be enhanced. The eagle chirps to her hunter – she can smell our presence. He coo’s to her, gently stroking her feathers and whispering something in Russian to the bird. The bird falls silence. She seems to understand.
Here in Kyrgyzstan, it is not a challenge or status to be the best eagle hunter – it is all about survival and providing for your family. The eagle plays a vital role in this. Trained to hunt anything that moves, the eagle circles and swoops down, landing heavily on its prey, talons outstretched. Walking back and forth over the catch until it finds the head, the golden eagle holds it down until the hunter arrives on horseback with his dog in tow. The eagle does not kill or disembowel its catch. It simply catches it for its hunter. We witness this training technique in action.
The eagle who hunts with precision, is rewarded with a fresh pigeon for her efforts – I now know what was in the hessian bag. Feasting hungrily and with a detailed aggression, the eagle gnaws at the flesh.
I watch as the hunter gently strokes his eagle and in response, the eagle seems to nuzzle into the hunter. A connection that appears emotional, yet the hunter claims no emotional connection to the bird. I ask about her eventual release. After 15yrs of hunting, the eagles are prepared to return to the wild. This process takes several months to ensure that the eagle will not return to the hunter once she is released for the last time. I question if this is a sad moment between the pair feeling my eyes well as I question this final farewell. A confused no? comes back to me. This is nature. We have done our job together and now she must go and find a mate and live life in the wild. Culture is often so simple. It is our overstimulated mentality that confuses this into something it is not.
I think of my cat at home. Just because our culture emotionally connects to an animal, it does not mean all cultures are the same. When wildlife is simply a means of life or death in the world of survival, emotion has very little place. Everything and everyone has a role to play in the circle of life. It is simply that black and white.
Tourism and Eagles – Do they work together or against each other? There is a fine line between utilising culture and tradition as an economy and education. In a region where tourism is still at a minimum, these eagle hunters are proud to share their culture and their stories with us. They do not charge us to take photos with their eagles and their eagles are not forced to do anything that is not natural to them. As travellers, we are paying for an education in a culture that is foreign to us. We are providing a small economy to some of the most remote living people on the planet – many who still live a life of barter and trade. If it is done correctly and with fragility, it can be managed in a positive way. It is certainly a skill and experience that can easily be exploited, but exploitation comes the toxic combination of greedy tourists, narrow minded businesses and locals who are desperate. When crafted with the right ethos, intentions and benefit for all involved, it can be nothing but positive. Culture after all, is what keeps the world curious.
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.