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To the ends of the earth

Over the course of five years, photographer Palani Mohan roamed the Altai mountains of western Mongolia in search of the world’s last surviving burkitshi – the men who hunt with golden eagles

I t was while working as an intern at the Sydney Morning Herald that photographer Palani Mohan first glimpsed a picture of the eagle hunters of Mongolia’s Altai mountains.

‘There was an archive of newspapers from around the world where I used to spend quite a bit of time,’ he recalls. ‘And it was in one of those papers that I first saw an image of a man standing on top of a snow-covered mountain holding a golden eagle in his arms. It quite literally took my breath away. That image was cemented in my mind.’

Fast forward 25 years and Mohan was working in Hong Kong when he happened to be sent an email publicising flights to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator.

A few months later, with what he admits was fairly limited forward planning, he was in the remote Altai Mountains, wrapped up against temperatures of -40°C and taking photos of the last few surviving eagle hunters on the planet.

He would return numerous times over the course of the next five years, gathering material for his recently published book and, in so doing, was privileged to be able to record a traditional way of life that is rapidly disappearing.

‘I wanted to document the last remaining eagle hunters (burkitshi), before they’re gone,’ he says. ‘For years I had wondered who these people were, how anybody could live in that environment and the whole idea of using golden eagles to go hunting. It just seemed to me to be from another planet.’

Over the years, he came to understand the hunters’ lifestyle possibly as well as any outsider ever could. ‘The way they live is anchored on the relationship between man and bird,’ he says. ‘They sometimes have a stronger bond to these eagles than they do with their families, because they spend so much time with them.

‘The way they live is anchored on the relationship between man and bird.’

‘The words love and family and bond are used over and over again by the hunters when talking about their eagles. These men love their birds and are adamant when they say that if you treat them well they will love you back and, when that happens, that’s when you have a really special relationship.’

That bond begins when the hunters take an eagle chick from the wild, adds Mohan. ‘There are no tall trees in the region so the eagles build their nests high up in rock faces and that is where the men go to find a young bird. They are specific in their search, looking for an eaglet that is three to four months old. Only the female birds are taken because they’re bigger and a lot more aggressive than the males.’

The hunters then hand-feed the birds, reinforcing the bond between them, before training them to hunt red foxes – predators that are also valued for their fur.

That is not all there is to this story, he adds. ‘A golden eagle can live for around 30 years, but after keeping them for about 15 the men then release them back into the wild. They give the birds back to nature and by doing that they are ensuring the eagles have the chance to have a family of their own. This is a very important part of the whole tradition.

‘When the time comes, during the summer months, the men ride off with their eagle far away from home. Under the cover of darkness they say their final goodbyes and let them go. It’s an incredibly moving time for them. It’s like giving up one of your family members.’

‘Eagle hunting is cold and lonely and the teenagers simply don’t think it is something they’d want to do.’

Sometimes the birds will not immediately take the chance of freedom, he says. ‘I have heard truly extraordinary stories about how these birds, weeks and months later, somehow find the men and return to them. And with a heavy heart they have to do the whole thing all over again.’

Over the years, Mohan developed a huge respect and affection for his subjects. ‘It’s minus 40 degrees, it’s one of the most remote places on earth. It’s cold, it’s windy and it’s a very remote and very hard life. These people spend a lot of time outside in all weathers herding their cattle and their yaks. Nothing really has changed for them in an awfully long time.’

It soon will, however, because this is a way of life that is clearly under threat. ‘One of the most important things I wanted to convey in doing this project was that the real eagle hunters are getting old and each winter claims a few more,’ Mohan says.

‘There are always going to be people in that region who own a golden eagle, but the real hunters are the ones I wanted to photograph. There are between 50 and 70 of these guys still left.

'So I was really interested in who these men are, how they’re dying out and the nature of their relationship with their birds.

‘The younger generation – like anywhere else in the world – they want to go the capital, they want to earn money, they want to work on the roads that are being built from Russia all the way down to China.

'Things are changing very fast in this part of the world and eagle hunting is cold and lonely and smelly and the teenagers simply don’t think it is something they’d want to do.

‘Every year I go back to Mongolia I notice it is changing fast and its unique culture is under threat.’

‘The real hunters take out their birds every day, they feed them, they hunt with them, they keep them in their homes. The eagles are a very important part of who they are as Kazakh Mongolians.’

Such people are becoming harder and harder to find, however, he adds. ‘Every year when I go back to Mongolia I notice something is different. For example, the airport gets bigger. There’s now a small shopping mall that sells noodle soups from China and vodka from Russia. The whole place is changing fast and its unique culture is under threat.’

It’s all a far cry from the archives of an Australian newspaper in the late 1980s, as Mohan recalls. ‘The real reason I did this was an image I saw when I was 17 years old and I had a chance to go and see that scene for myself many years later. When I got there I found out the real story was that a way of life was dying out.’

Words: DH

Palani Mohan

Mohan is a Hong Kong-based photographer whose work has been featured in a wide variety of international publications including National Geographic, Stern, Geo, The New York Times, Time and Newsweek.

His books include Hidden Faces of India and Vanishing Giants: Elephants of Asia.

Hunting with Eagles, in the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs, by Palani Mohan, is published by Merrell, price £30.

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2016

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