There’s an Ancient Bond Between Mongolia’s Hunters and Golden Eagles

Since the time of Kublai Kahn, the Kazakh people have allied with raptors to find sustenance in a barren, mountainous land.

Atop the ridges of the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, Dalaikhan Itale and his trusted companion prepare for the hunt. When Itale spots a fox or hare in the valley below, he’ll release the Golden Eagle to swoop down and capture the prey.

For centuries burkitshi, or eagle hunters, have provided the Kazakh people with food during the frigid winter months. Eaglets are captured from their nests high in rocky crevices and live for many years with the families of hunters, who begin training them at age 13. Only female birds are selected, as they ultimately grow to be larger than males, giving them an edge as hunters. The bond between trainer and bird is deep; she answers only to his voice.

The burkitshi tradition dates back to the reign of Kublai Khan, who went out hunting with thousands of birds and falconers. These days, the burkitshi’s ranks number several dozen.

Tradition calls for hunters to set birds free after about a decade, so one spring morning Itale will let her go. If necessary, he’ll hide or wait until dark to ensure she doesn’t follow him home, and that she lives out the rest of her life in the wild.