In search of the eagle huntresses

In ancient times, women hunted alongside men in the nomadic Kazakh community.

Kazakh girls in Mongolia
Semser Bahitnur, 23, right, and her sister Aigbek, 14, near their family cabin in Altai, Mongolia [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]
Semser Bahitnur, 23, right, and her sister Aigbek, 14, near their family cabin in Altai, Mongolia [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

Altai, Mongolia - Sitting motionless on a wooden perch at the side of a small family cabin high in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia is a golden eagle.

The magnificent bird of prey is attached to a long rope, her delicate head and amber eyes covered by a black leather cap; only her beak is exposed. The eagle was caught in the wild and trained to hunt – but not by the young woman rushing past who barely acknowledges it as she makes her way to the cow pen.

Twenty-three-year-old Semser Bahitnur’s jet-black hair is rolled into a messy bun. It’s almost five o’clock in the evening, time to milk the cows. The young mother squats on a low stool and begins to move her fingers quickly. Her bright pink cheeks are burned raw from daily outdoor chores.

Semser comes from a nomadic Kazakh family of well-known eagle-hunting men. Her 80-year-old grandfather Ajken Tabysbek and father Shokhan have won many national tournaments over the decades. Photographs and medals adorn the inside walls of their cabin, and their names have captured the attention of international photographers and paying tourists who come to Altai to get a glimpse of Mongolia’s eagle-hunting culture.

Inside the family cabin, Semser moves tirelessly, preparing fresh milk for the family. When asked about women going hunting with eagles, she tells Al Jazeera, “Yes, women can hunt if there is time and there are horses.”

But her photograph is not among those on the family’s hunting wall of fame.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv
A file photo of huntress Aisholpan Nurgaiv, taken in Dubai on December 10, 2016 [File: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF]

In 2013, Kazakh women in Mongolia captured global attention when a young eagle huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, became the subject of a viral photograph taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky. He returned to the country in 2014 with British director Otto Bell, who made a documentary about the teenager.

The storyline focused on her being an outlier in Kazakh culture in what Bell described as an “isolated” community with “a certain kind of ignorance about what woman can do”. These remarks were made during a press interview on CBS's Mountain Morning Show in January 2016, where he also said she was the “first woman to eagle hunt in the 2,000-year-old male-dominated history”.

But Kazakhs and historians say this is not true.

A Kazakh girl and an eagle
The wing span of the golden eagle can stretch to six feet [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]
The wing span of the golden eagle can stretch to six feet [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

Altai is where Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia and China meet.

In Kazakstan, 67-year-old Bagdat Muktepkekyzy is a former eagle huntress and retired journalist.

Speaking to Al Jazeera via a messaging app, she tells of first learning the tradition of eagle hunting in 1966 when she was 10 years old.

“My great grandfather, Bekmyrza, had 200 birds of prey (eagles, falcons, hawks). And I started learning eagle hunting with my grandfather Taji - he held a crown eagle - and also with my father Nupteke, who was an eagle hunter ... I know how to catch an eagle, go hunting, and everything to do with the skill.”

She speaks of her excitement while out hunting high on a horse. “There was a sense of pride that swells in my chest, as if flying into space. The sound of flying eagles, the fresh air of the mountains and steppes - it was wonderful.

“There is an indescribable feeling: pride, joy when you take off the eagle tomaga [cap] and send it to hunt,” she says.

Bagdat attended university to study journalism. But the eagles followed her into the world of work too. After graduating, she worked as a reporter for the state broadcaster for 20 years in the editorial office of agriculture. “On business trips, I would go to the villages, there I collected a lot of material about eagles, greyhounds, horses, and I made reports,” she says.

Committed to keeping the tradition of eagle hunting alive, in 1998, she established the first eagle training school in Kazakhstan, Zhalayr Shora School of Eagles, and off the back of its success started the Kyran (Golden Eagle) Federation Public Fund in 2005 - an organisation that teaches falconry skills and organises national and international falconry competitions. She also successfully lobbied the government in Kazakhstan to include the art form as a national sport, writing the regulations needed.

An eagle used for hunting
When golden eagles hunt, they use their powerful talons to pierce their prey. The talons are so sharp, a yak skin sheath has to be worn on the arm to prevent injury when holding the bird [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]
When golden eagles hunt, they use their powerful talons to pierce their prey. The talons are so sharp, a yak skin sheath has to be worn on the arm to prevent injury when holding the bird [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

“Eagle hunting always included women,” says Adrienne Mayor, a historian at Stanford University, who details the practice and its history in her 2016 research paper, The Eagle Huntress - Ancient Traditions and New Generations. “Archaeology also suggests that eagle huntresses were more common in ancient times.”

“The oldest known artefact showing this kind of hunting is a golden ring made about 2,500 years ago. The scene on the ring shows a woman on a running horse. She’s spearing a deer. Her eagle is hovering above the deer and her hound is grabbing its leg,” she tells Al Jazeera.

The historian explains that the Kazakhs are descendants of the Scythians who were expert horse people and archers. “They considered men and women equal, and in small tribes, it was logical and necessary for everyone, young and old, to be able to wield a weapon and ride horses and hunt with an eagle for survival. You had to be able to contribute to the group as a stakeholder on the steppes,” she says.

Although the practice is “now more commonly passed down between males, in ancient times, men and women fought in battle together and hunted side-by-side”.

One reason for the shift could be that the community, although still nomadic, “live a much more settled existence” compared with ancient times, when the nomads kept only horses, she says.

“Even though they migrate each summer and winter, there is now a division of roles between men and women for labour, agriculture, hunting, taking care of the livestock and running the settlement areas.”

The traditional skill of hunting with an eagle is also no longer needed for survival, as modern times have increased options in terms of food and clothing. “Gone are the days when everyone lived a vigorous outdoor life,” says Mayor, and learning the practice is now more about keeping the tradition alive.

Men herd camels in Mongolia
Shokhan and his brother shave their Bactrian camels. The hair is used to make warm clothing, rugs and blankets for the winter [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

The landscape in Altai is vast, desolate and unforgiving. There are few trees in the wilderness, so golden eagles build their nests high in the crevices of mountains.

In winter, the temperature can drop to 40 degrees below zero; the rolling hills get covered in a blanket of snow, waist-deep in some parts, while freezing temperatures turn many freshwater lakes into ice.

Winter is peak hunting season as the vast white snowscape allows eagles to easily spot prey for hunters to track.

Eagles and hunters share a very personal relationship, and each hunter has their own bird. Most hunters prefer to trap an eaglet after it has "fledged", and learned to fly from its parents, but when it's still young enough to be trained to form a tight human bond. Female birds are used to hunt as they are larger and more aggressive. It takes years to hone hunting skills and the trust of the bird.

To hunt with an eagle is also not easy. A hunter must ride one-handed, galloping at speed across glaciers with a 7kg (15.5-pound) bird on their forearm in the freezing cold for many hours. An apprenticeship starts during the hunter's early teenage years. After seven to 10 years with a hunter, an eagle is usually released back into the wild to keep the population abundant.

Every year during summer in Altai, the trained hunting eagles are rested and fed a heavy diet of rich meat like marmots to get them to shed their feathers and grow new ones in time for winter.

At the same time, nomadic Kazakh families pack up their winter cabins for the summer migration with their livestock, move to greener pastures about 100km (62 miles) away to pitch their tents, and focus more on husbandry duties.

At the Ajken family cabin in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Semser is tending to the milk when the heavy shuffle of feet entering catches her attention. Four men of various ages enter, take low stools from the back wall, and form a circle around a small wooden table: her grandfather, father, uncle and teenage brother.

The men are taking a short break from rounding up and shearing the camels. The hair is valuable and can be sold. Dinner will not be ready for another four hours, and they are hungry. Semser carefully pours boiled cows’ milk into ceramic bowls for each man. They drink in silence.

“I want to be able to do what everyone [the men] does,” Semser tells Al Jazeera wearily, sitting down.

A Kazakh girl with an eagle
Golden eagles have acute vision, and are made to wear a “hood” or leather cap to keep the bird in a calm state [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]
Golden eagles have acute vision, and are made to wear a “hood” or leather cap to keep the bird in a calm state [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

If eagle hunting is alive in Mongolia, it is to preserve the art form, according to Dinara Assanova, the founder of Women of Kazakhstan History, a non-governmental organisation and virtual online museum focused on great women from Central Asia.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty, she says although the tradition of eagle hunting among Kazakh women dates back centuries, it has changed dramatically.

“Women and men do not need to hunt in modern day. If it is happening, it is to keep the tradition alive, and it is for show, it is not in order to survive,” she says.

Explaining the changes over time, Assanova, who is writing a PhD on Women’s Experiences During Stalinist Purges at Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University, says: “The situation changed when the Soviet power came to Kazakhstan. They transformed our nomadic civilisation and society into a city infrastructure. They built factories and forced Kazakhs to become settlers and that’s when we lost eagle hunting in general, not just the part of female ones, but the tradition itself was erased because a lot of our traditions, like poetry and so on, were prohibited.”

She says the difference with the Kazakh community in Mongolia is that they “have preserved their culture by leaving Kazakhstan, so many keep eagles”. But Assanova believes that many of the girls who learn to handle an eagle only do so today because “they want to have fun”.

She also feels that film director Bell misrepresented Kazakh culture in the documentary about Aisholpan. In a Facebook post dated December 24, 2016, she wrote, “The producers of the film came up with a great way to sell their film, using gender stereotypes to show our history and culture.”

Kazakh girls in Mongolia
Aigbek, right, and Semser holding the family’s golden eagle [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

Aisholpan was 13 years old when she won Mongolia’s annual Golden Eagle Festival. The event was filmed for part of Bell’s documentary. It was her first competition and she beat 78 experienced male eagle hunters – surprising many in the Altai community.

The film went on to become a global box office success, nominated for many prestigious awards. And with the publicity came growing domestic and international interest from tourists wanting to visit eagle festivals in Mongolia. There is now not one, but three festivals hosted every year - in September, October and March.

Organisers say the events help preserve the thousands of years old tradition and showcase different falconry and equestrian skills in an outdoor arena.

The Golden Eagle festival – held just outside the town of Olgii, 180km (122 miles) from Semser's family's cabin and more than 1,600km (994 miles) from Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar – is the most popular of the three eagle festivals and a top tourist attraction since Aisholpan’s win.

Tour operators describe it as a three-day carnival: food stalls are set up and locals sell clothes, souvenirs and ornate horse riding gear. Elaborately decorated horse saddles can be sold for up to $5,000 apiece. It is a spectacle of colour and tradition, and a way to inject cash into Mongolia’s struggling economy.

Competitors of any age and any gender can enter the "eagle hunting" part of the festival to win medals, money and a reputation for themselves. Participants are judged on specific skills: how they send their eagle off to catch a fox pellet being pulled on a rope; how fast an eagle can locate its owner when called, and also on their pageantry and horsemanship.

Today more young Kazakh women compete in the festivals. But according to tradition, to be called a real huntress, they must prove themselves beyond the confines of an arena, and together with their eagle, make a kill in the wild during the deep, harsh winter.

Veteran huntress Bagdat says the mastery needed to survive the extreme challenges of hunting in Mongolia and Kazakhstan during their winters, is very different. In those conditions, the frozen landscape is remote, hostile and unpredictable.

“Hunting is done in winter when the snow is thick and the sun is cold. Horse riding in thick snow is very dangerous," she explains.

“The festivals are held in outdoor arenas: old palaces and some in stadiums but the area is small and narrow in places. When you hunt, you hunt in nature. The field is much greater.”

Bagdat has been organising eagle festivals for 35 years. Her former student, Makpal Abdrazakova, was a famous huntress who, at age 25, made headlines in 2012 for her athleticism when few women were hunting. But, Bagdat tells Al Jazeera, “There are no women in the eagle national sports today".

“Makpal, she was a huntress for five to six years, but she is no longer active. She is now married and has two children. My brother has a daughter, she is eight years old, and she has been carrying an eagle and a falcon for a year. But there is no female hunting.

“Today no one hunts, it is a hobby. Festivals keep the art alive. Young people sometimes do it for fun. But they give up quickly.”

Camels in Mongolia
The Ajken family raises camels, which are used to transport heavy materials across difficult terrain [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]
The Ajken family raises camels, which are used to transport heavy materials across difficult terrain [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

Documentary photographer Palani Mohan spent five years travelling back and forth to the Altai Mountains from 2012 to stay with what he calls the last “true” eagle hunters.

“Hunting for them is a way of life. There must be less than 50 ‘true’ hunters left. Many of the older ones I spent time with, who were in their 90s, have since passed away. They were all men,” he tells Al Jazeera.

There is a Kazakh saying that men love their birds more than they love their wives, Mohan says. “The hunters I met sang to their birds, they even wrote poetry about them. They spent more time with their eagles than with their families. When they release the bird they cry and sing songs that say, ‘Are you safe, do you have enough food?' [And] how they miss them. It is like a child they had to give up. The connection between a hunter and his bird is very obvious when you see them together and it is very special.”

Mohan went back 10 times to collect images for his book, Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs. He says out of the 10,000 images he took, not one image was of a woman or girl hunting in winter over a five-year period. At that same time, he photographed many women and girls in a domestic setting and had access to families who opened up to him over the years he visited.

“No one spoke about women or girls hunting. I asked several times over several years, and the answer was always the same. My publisher even asked me the same question, especially after Asher Svidensky’s photograph of Aisholpan went viral. But I did not see this with the ‘real’ eagle hunters I stayed with.

“This is because, in modern times, women have an important role in the home. When the men go off to hunt, they travel very, very, long distances. And when they return, they just want to eat and sleep. Someone has to make dinner, and take care of the family and look after the livestock. They have to keep the nomadic life ticking over. There is a lot to do,” he says.

“Often the men have to sleep on the floor of a stranger’s hut if they are far from home,” he adds. “You are not going to take your teenage daughter to sleep in another man’s home. They are an Islamic community, Sunnis with a modest faith, this just isn’t done.”

According to historian Mayor: “The demands of raising a family and managing a household or working outside the home make it hard for married women to be active eagle huntresses – unless their relatives are committed to helping make time for the activity.”

A man and his young granddaughter in Mongolia
Ajken Tabysbek, 80, with his 5-year-old granddaughter Sanglak at the family home against the backdrop of the Altai Mountains [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]
Ajken Tabysbek, 80, with his 5-year-old granddaughter Sanglak at the family home against the backdrop of the Altai Mountains [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

At Ajken’s cabin in Altai, the men in the family are active eagle hunters. But Shokhan has not passed down his skills to Semser or her 14-year-old sister Aigbek. The two girls play a domestic role – cooking, cleaning, washing, fetching water, milking the livestock and making various dairy products. They can handle his bird to give it water and bring it out into the daylight from its enclosure - but their work in and around the home is their focus.

Al Jazeera was introduced to this eagle-hunting family by local guide Nurbol Kahjikhan, with the promise of meeting, photographing and speaking to female huntresses. Shokhan declined to speak to Al Jazeera directly, but reluctantly allowed us an interview with Semser. When questioned about hunting, Semser appears uncomfortable and impassive in her responses. When asked what she likes about the culture of hunting, she fidgets and after a long silence half-heartedly replies: “I enjoy it.”

Several hours after leaving the family, the guide sheds some light on her behaviour. “These girls do not hunt,” he confesses. “They go to school in the winter. It’s for publicity ... it’s about the cameras. We know tourists and photographers want to see girls and eagles. And we want people to visit Altai.”

Ajken tells Al Jazeera many Kazakhs believe that Aisholpan’s story and win were also merely a publicity stunt. “She did it for the cameras. Women do not hunt today,” the elder claims.

“Before Aisholpan’s story, few people knew about our tradition. Yes, now many people are happy she put Olgii on the map and it spread around the world. So why not bring more tourists here to stay with eagle hunter families if that’s what they want?”

Eagle hunter families in this region can benefit financially if paying outsiders are brought by their guides to stay. Tour company Kazakh Tours told Al Jazeera families can earn around $15 per tourist per night. This in a country where the average income of a herder is less than $470 per year, according to World Bank figures from 2013.

When tourists come around, Semser's family actively encourage her and her sister to dress in their furs and role-play as authentic huntresses.

Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia
Shokhan, a prize-winning eagle hunter in Altai, started learning the Kazakh tradition as a teenager. He helps his daughter hold the bird [Asha Tanna/Al Jazeera]

“I worry that the proliferation of young, fake ‘eagle huntresses’ posing with tame eagles for photographers and tourists is already erasing the real history of eagle hunting by women,” Mayor says. “It is a shame that the blame for this situation originated with a professional photographer and a filmmaker who decided to make Aisholpan famous for their own gain.”

Mayor is alluding to the slanted marketing at the time of the documentary which pushed a storyline about “a girl who won’t be held back by gender-centred tradition”, according to its director Otto Bell, speaking to NPR in January 2016.

Only after callouts from historian Mayor and other critics about the authenticity of Bell’s claims about Aisholpan being the first eagle huntress in 2,000 years did he correct his narrative. Speaking to National Geographic on August 5, 2016, he said, “It’s important to note that Aisholpan is not the first modern Kazakh eagle huntress - that’s a fairly common mistake. An older lady from Kazakhstan named Makpal Abdrazakova preceded her in training an eagle.”

As for Aisholpan, she has since managed to use her fame to pay to further her education and was given a scholarship in 2020 at Suleyman Demirel University in Kazakhstan. Her Facebook posts are about her travel to 26 countries, a book deal and endless publicity tours. She was also awarded a state medal by the Mongolian prime minister in 2018 - Order of Golden Star Mongolia - for her contribution to the country. The locals in her community say her father Rys is now planning to open a falconry school in Kazakhstan.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv
Nurgaiv Rys, Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Almagul Kuksygyen in December 2016 in Dubai [File: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF]

Nearly 10 years on, however, the allegations in Altai about her win at the festival continue. Many hunters say the competition was rigged to fit the film’s storyline – something festival organisers have always denied.

“Aisholpan’s stardom encourages copycats and is erasing all the unknown women who were real eagle huntresses in the past and those are who are carrying on the real heritage today ... like Makpal," Mayor laments.

Neither Aisholpan nor Svidensky and Bell responded to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for interviews.

Meanwhile, back at Ajken’s cabin in Altai, dressed in their fox furs, Shokhan’s daughters Semser and Aigbek look striking against a bright blue sky with the wilderness stretching far behind them.

They clumsily lift the eagle from its wooden perch. The bird majestically arches her six-foot wingspan high above their heads to steady herself, while digging her sharp talons into the yak skin sheath protecting their arms.

The sisters take turns holding her. Just outside the camera's range, Shokhan waits, ready to assist and shout commands in Kazakh. He's the hunter, and the choreographer.

Source: Al Jazeera