Sunday, December 6, 2009

Kazakhs revive ancient tradition of eagle hunt.

Updated on : Sunday, December 6, 2009

ASTANA: With the first fall of snow on the windswept steppe lands of eastern Kazakhstan on Saturday (December 5), hunters saddled up and rode, eagles on their arms, on the day when tradition says the hunting season begins.

The sudden snowfall masks rocks and hills with a sparkling blanket of snow, making it easier for the men to follow animal tracks -- and, when the time is right, release their giant golden eagles into the air to snatch up foxes and rabbits.

In modern-day Kazakhstan, hunting with eagles is being revived as a sport by enthusiasts of every generation, who travel across this vast country to participate in tournaments like the one held on Saturday in the Chengelsky Gorge, near the eastern border with China.

"My father taught me, I taught my son, and now I'm teaching my grandsons," said Baurzhan Yeshmetov, a 62-year-old man in an embroidered velvet tunic, his eagle perched heavily on his arm.

Nearby his two grandsons stood in costume, each with his own smaller hawk on his arm. Yeshmetov, when not hunting, puts on his city clothes and works as a taxi driver in Kazakhstan's financial hub of Almaty.

Hunters often gather in the icy hills on the Kazakh border with China -- far from cities like Almaty, bustling with luxury cars and wi-fi cafes -- to determine whose eagle is the best.

The Kazakh eagle is indeed one of the world's fiercest, with a wingspan of 6.6 feet, razor-sharp talons and the ability to dive at the speed of an express train -- up to 190 mph.

During the Saturday tournament, a panel of juries watched with unsmiling faces from a hilltop as hunters, clad in massive fox-fur hats, unleashed straps and sent eagles into the air.

Nearby, villagers, wrapped in layers of felt and fur against the icy wind, prepared kebabs in open-air barbeque stands, sending plumes of blue smoke drifting across the hills.

Loudspeakers blared Kazakh folk songs and tourists, some looking out of place with their binoculars and fluorescent outdoor gear, stared in awe from a distance.

Many in Kazakhstan see eagle hunting as a symbol of their nation's nomadic past and a throwback to an oft-romanticised era before these steppes turned into a geopolitical battleground between competing regional powers like Russia and China.

Two decades of explosive economic growth that followed Kazakhstan's independence from Moscow's rule in 1991 have also created a curious generation of young Kazakhs whose search for a new identity has led them to look to this old hunting tradition.

"Now the art of eagle hunting is being taught in schools and many young people have started to take up the sport of eagle hunting," said 2008 champion Makpal Muptekekyzy.

As a woman, she is rare in the sport of eagle hunting, but has become a popular competitor in local contests, with her elaborate costume and classic Kazakh good looks.

Called 'berkutchi' in Kazakh, professional eagle hunters number only about 50 in Kazakhstan -- a vast nation that has used its oil wealth to transform itself from a sleepy Soviet backwater into a modern consumer society.

Some locals see the revival as a chance to build the local tourist industry.

"We are starting to revive this activity, because it's our heritage, it's one of our national sports, and besides, for tourists it's a very exotic kind of sport", said local businessman Sakhin Abdikalliev.

For the hunters themselves, the bond with an eagle carries a powerful mystique which may even help to restore humanity's relationship with nature.

"I think what is most dangerous in the 21st century isn't weapons, or atomic bombs, it's the ecological crisis. Hunting with eagles is the best link between man and nature - if you hunt with eagles, they teach you to understand nature", said Abuk Khak, one of Kazakhstan's first eagle hunters to emerge at the end of the Soviet Union.

Eagle hunting was largely banned during Soviet rule and the tradition would have disappeared altogether had it not been doggedly preserved by ethnic Kazakhs in China and Mongolia.

In the biggest blow, more than a million Kazakhs took their skills to their graves during a Soviet-inflicted famine in the 1930s when Josef Stalin's forced collectivisation campaign erased entire villages in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia.

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