Nowadays, the fast-pace life in large cities is attractive to almost everyone, and we all seem to rush towards urbanization. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Mongolia natives struggle to preserve their traditional life.
These tribes are nomad, and still drive their herds across the vast steppes. Their family life centers around their portable tents known as ger, and they have incredible skills on horseback, that help them guard their herds.
The one who can tame, train and hunt with eagles is especially appreciated in Mongolian tribes. These people are considered sacred, and they use eagles as companions and helpers during their hunting missions.
This tradition of eagle hunting is passed down from father to son for millennia, but it is still alive in a few tribes only. Also known as falconry, it requires skilled handlers to train birds of prey to help them in the hunt for wild animals.
In ancient times, only the noble classes practiced berkutchi, as it’s called in Mongolia, but nowadays, it is a right of passage for young men in the Altai region in Western Mongolia.
While golden eagle hunters were historically male, over time, women started practicing the ancient art too.
There are about 400 keepers among nomadic tribes in Mongolia these days, and only ten of them are female.
14-year-old Zamanbol is one of them.
German photographer Leo Thomas traveled to the Altai region to closely observe this culture. On his trip, he managed to capture the raw beauty of this lifestyle and the brave young girl that is determined to preserve the bond with her eagle.
Zamanbol’s grandfather Matei was an experienced eagle keeper, and the girl went hunting with him when she was younger. He taught her how to hunt wolves and small prey with the eagle, and after his death, she inherited his eagle.
This huntress belongs to the Kazakh nomad family and a generation of youths that are attempting to preserve their ancient culture in the high-tech world today.
On weekdays, she is like any teenager around the world, and she goes to school.
Yet, during the weekends, she puts on the traditional attire of handmade fur clothing, gets her horse, and walks miles in the snow beyond mountains to train with her brother, Barzabai.
Thomas, who’s the same age as him, made a comparison:
“While he’s living in the outdoors surrounded by family, incredible nature and animals, I’m sitting more than 60% of my time in front of a screen. A pretty basic comparison, but it made me think.”
Eagle hunting is a legacy for Zamanbol, and she said:
“After my grandfather’s death, I wanted to continue his way.”
After several years, they release the eagles. Zamanbol admitted that she was broken when she had to let her companion go. Her family slaughtered a sheep for the occasion, and she tied a white ribbon around its leg, went up to the mountains and said goodbye:
“I was sad, but I wanted her to be free.”
Hunters initially choose an eaglet off the mother’s nest, and the training starts. Eagles are usually 4 years old when they are taken to hunt, as they are old enough for it, but young enough to adapt to the hunter and form a strong bond. They are treated like family, hunters feed them by hand, and live in comfortable quarters in the family home.
Hunters prefer female eagles, as they are bigger and can weigh 15 pounds more than the male. The hunter and the eagle gradually develop a very strong bond, and hunters often sing or coo softly to them.
Over the years, the eagle learns the pitch of the voice of the hunter.
The hunter treks high up into the mountains, and chooses a suitable vantage point from where to observe the valleys and plains below. When they spot a target, they release the eagle.
Their amazing eyesight helps them see prey like foxes and wolves. The eagle captures the prey and soars back up to give it over to the hunter.
To keep their tradition alive, the Altai Kazakhs organize a Golden Eagle Hunting Festival every year, where hunters show the strength of the bond they develop with eagles.
Their job is to successfully call their bird from the top of a mountain with loud cries and bait meat on a stick. The winner is always cheered from the crowd.
The two-day festival is open to tourists, attracting thousands of visitors, and a lot of hunters turn up to participate.
After spending some time with the tribes, another photographer, Daniel Kordan, explained:
“These people are actually very happy with this life, no matter how hard it is. And even kids starting from 13 years old can keep their eagle. The bond with the bird is so strong!
Actually, even the eyes and the look of the eagle and its master resemble each other. They also respect their bird and release it into the wild after it turns 10 years old.”
“I’m fascinated by nomad culture. It’s an elusive culture, almost extinct nowadays. There are just around 300 eagle keepers left keeping this thousand-year-old tradition. It’s hard to keep and so easy to move toward “civilization,” but these people try to keep the tradition and pass it on through generations.”