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Photo story: Traditional hunting in Mongolia

The vast, dramatic steppe of Bayan-Ölgii Province in westernmost Mongolia provides an epic backdrop for the ancient art of hunting with eagles

By Matt Brandon
Published 17 Apr 2019, 18:02 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:27 GMT
Hunter in Mongolia
Hunter and eagle in Mongolia.
Photograph by Matt Brandon

Sailau, one of the eagle hunters, contemplates the day’s hunt, surrounded by colourful carpets and past trophies of sandgrouse and corsac foxes. Hunting with eagles — known as berkutchi — is an ancient practice still used in remote regions such as Bayan-Ölgii. It’s been a way of life for around 6,000 years. Although Sailau spends much of his time out on horseback with his loyal golden eagle Tirnek, he also runs a farm with his family, rearing sheep, goats and Bactrian camels.

A young eagle hunter
Photograph by Matt Brandon
Traditional Mongolian ghers (tents)
Photograph by Matt Brandon

Berikjan, Sailau’s youngest son, has followed in his father’s footsteps to become a champion eagle hunter. It’s become a competitive sport in the Altai Mountains, and it’s not uncommon for competitors to travel huge distances to compete. The falconry and their nomadic lifestyle also draw visitors to the region, who can even rent a gher (similar to a yurt) from Sailau’s family to experience life as a local.

Endless steppe, Mongolia.
Photograph by Matt Brandon
Sailau takes a break with his eagle
Photograph by Matt Brandon

Navigating the area’s rocky terrain — and herding the family’s camels — is most efficiently done by motorbike or in a Furgon (a Soviet-era 4X4 van). Life on the road can be stressful for both man and bird, so Sailau takes regular breaks with Tirnek, placing a leather hood over her eyes to calm her. Females are chosen as hunters because they’re fiercer and bigger than male eagles. Sailau has had Tirnek since she was a chick, but will release her back into the wild when she turns seven.

Sailau and his eagle
Photograph by Matt Brandon

In spite of their pride and prowess, Sailau, Berikjan and his older brother Ayu are the defenders of a tradition in decline, one with an unknown future. It’s estimated that only 300 Mongolian Kazakh eagle hunters remain in this wild corner of the world, with much of the younger generation turning to easier, more lucrative work rather than preserving this unique, ancient tradition. 

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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