Eagle Hunting: Marketization of Traditional Practice
By Lucy Xu
Photo: Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0).
The 6000-year-old tradition of eagle hunting in the far west of Mongolia is a fascinating aspect of Mongolian culture that first drew me to the country. I did a little background reading on eagle hunting before coming to Mongolia on the ANU study tour, and was aware that there are now fewer than sixty ‘true’ herders who hunt with eagles left[i]. Imitation eagle hunters have been cropping up across the country, capitalizing on a growing tourism industry. I witnessed this at popular monuments like the Zaisan Memorial, and along major roads. The changes in attitude toward eagle hunting culture, provides a lens for studying the impact of environmental and economic transitions in the modern century.
Eagle hunting, or falconry, is practiced in the rugged Altai Mountains by ethnic Kazakhs, but was once practiced across Mongolia among nomadic and noble families alike. Hunting is generally passed down from fathers to sons, but not exclusively so, with daughters also allowed to participate. Hunters capture chicks from their nests at the top of cliffs, selecting females (as they are larger and fiercer) with the strongest claws and eyes, to train with them for around six years. They live and hunt together for another five or six years, before the eagle is repatriated back into the wild to breed and continue the line of hunting birds. Done in its traditional form, this practice is sustainable, with minimal ecological impact.[ii]
In 2010, UNESCO inscribed eagle hunting as a practice on the Representative List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Eagle hunting was commended as an ancient cultural practice and in order to safeguard its legacy.[iii] The annual Golden Eagle Festival was initiated to ensure continued visibility of the tradition, in a manner that ensures adherence to certain levels of ethical and humane treatment, but the practice has become susceptible to exploitation.
Environmental challenges, particularly the changing climate (with harsh summers and catastrophic winters, including severe weather conditions known as dzud), as well as overgrazing of Mongolian lands in recent years has meant a loss in livestock numbers and a decrease in biodiversity. The impact of Mongolia’s economic transitions have meant that more Kazakh families send their children to the cities to earn incomes to supplement pastoralism, leading to an influx of herders seeking employment in the city, or to take advantage of opportunities facilitated by the burgeoning mining industry.[iv]
The small, but growing tourism sector, has spurred the exploitation of eagle hunting as a form of business, capitalizing on the market brought by tourists and travellers. As a result, imitation eagle hunters, often not upholding the customary process and violating ethical standards of treatment, have flourished as informal trade. The marketing of Mongolian values and customs can also be witnessed across other areas, as a result of increasing tourism.
During my time in Mongolia, I wish I had been able to see the unique bond of trust and companionship shared between a Kazakh hunter and the golden eagle. Instead, in the heart of the city, beneath tourist destinations, and along the highway, I witnessed shadow imitations of the practice. Eagles were chained to posts, often in the heat without shade or water. Tourists were told to ‘shake their arms’ to make the eagles spread their wings for stability and to look more impressive for the camera. It was heartbreaking to see such conditions and the departure from fundamental values connected with eagle hunting that makes it so rare and precious.
[i] Denhoed, Andrea. ‘The Golden-Eagle Hunters of Mongolia’ The New Yorker (20 October 2015) https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-eagle-hunters-of-mongolia
[ii] Carney, Matthew. ‘Is this teenage Mongolian girl one of the last eagle hunters — or the first of a new breed?’ ABC News (2 May 2017) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-02/mongolian-girl-keeps-ancient-eagle-hunting-tradition-alive/8481956
[iii] Ali, Hajar. ‘An Insight into the Life of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters’ Culture Trip (22 November 2016) https://theculturetrip.com/asia/mongolia/articles/kazakh-eagle-hunters/#
[iv] Stamboulis, Dave. ‘Mongolia’s 6,000-year Tradition’ BBC Travel (28 September 2016) http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160926-mongolias-6000-year-tradition