I saw this man walking down the street with a golden eagle on his arm in Lijiang, a city in The Three Parallel Rivers Region of Yunnan, China. He said he was Naxi – Lijiang’s Old Town is the capital of Naxi culture, although much of the indigenous population has been driven out since UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site. Since then, the Old Town has transformed into such a badly exploited tourist destination, UNESCO has considered revoking the designation.
His eagle was 2 years old, and had been taken from a nest in Tibet. Golden eagles have been caught and trained to hunt prey as big as wolves in many parts of Asia, and this man said his eagle caught all of its own food – although, he admitted, if was often rabbits he purchased and released for the eagle to catch. The eagle was allowed to hunt on its own – but it’s owner would recapture the eagle before it could eat it’s prey. “If it is hungry, it will come back – but if it eats until it is full, it will fly away forever,” the man explained.
I wondered what this man, dressed not in traditional Naxi dress but rather like a strange Chinese cowboy, was doing with this beautiful bird, if not hunting – I found my answer in the center of the Lijiang Old Town. There, I saw the fake cowboy again – with 4 other men, all dressed in identical costumes, all with golden eagles perched on their arms. This was their business model. For 10 Yuan, or about $1.50, you could have your photo taken with an eagle perched on your arm. Business was good – a constant stream of tourists were paying for the photo op, ensuring that the poaching of these eagles for tourism would not be ending any time soon.