Photographs of Kyrgyz eagle hunters inspired me to learn to ride, book flights to Kyrgyzstan and arrange to stay with a master Burkutchu (eagle hunter). Through Tilek at CBT Kyrgyzstan I made contact with Ruslan, a medal-winning eagle hunter, and arranged to spend time living with him, his family and his golden eagles near Lake Issyk-Kul.
Ruslan was a wonderful host – I arrived and was welcomed to his home, a pretty white-washed house with blue trim. Ruslan was dressed in his full eagle hunter finery – which is rated and scored in competitions – and showed me his medals. After sharing tea in the living room which the family had made over to me to sleep in, I ventured outside. Ruslan has an outdoor kitchen and long-drop toilet, a vegetable patch, lots of rabbits in hutches and three golden eagles. Each eagle has a wooden enclosure with a grassy seat and Ruslan showed me how he goes a little way outside the village and digs up a new circle of turf every few days to refresh the seat. He smiled and chose some grass with flowers as “a present” for his youngest eagle.
During the day the eagles sit out in the garden, perched on little hoops. Ruslan explained that they bathe and showed how he fills a metal tub with water for them. One eagle was keen and jumped right in, whilst another was reluctant and even with gentle coaxing didn’t want to get his feet wet! I could see how much Ruslan loves his eagles – and how they respond to him – turning towards his voice, pushing their head like a cat against his hand as he strokes them and calling to him. Eventually the reluctant eagle allowed Ruslan to cup water in his hand and pour it over her – his soothing voice talking to her the whole time.
Ruslan explained how he makes the little leather hats from a basic template, altered for each eagle to make sure it’s a comfortable fit. As eagles have such incredible eyesight he said when they’re out in the garden, they’re calmer when they wear the hats rather than straining to fly after everything they see. He showed us how he makes simple nets by tying thin twine and uses these to catch a young eagle ready to train. The custom is that each eagle is trained and stays with the eagle hunter for around 7-9 years before being released back into the wild.
The eagles also have a swing in the garden – “car training” Ruslan said, explaining that it helps them to learn how to balance on a moving perch. I didn’t understand until later that day when we took the eagles out to the nearby mountains to practice hunting skills – they seemed perfectly happy: one in the backseat and one in the boot of his little car!
Seeing the eagles flying freely in the mountains – coming back to Ruslan when he called or calling and repeatedly looking over towards him when they caught something – showed just how strong the bond is between eagle and hunter. There’s nothing stopping the bird just flying away – Ruslan explained that the importance of this bond is why he spends hours everyday sitting with, talking to and stroking the eagles. This bond is also the reason he’s only been scratched once – and that was when he had to separate his eagle from another hunter’s eagle when they started fighting over a kill.
We watched one of his older and more experienced eagles as Ruslan demonstrated how he trains them – pulling a fox skin along the ground for them to ‘catch’. Then it was time for his youngest eagle to attempt her first kill. A rabbit had been brought from the hutch in the garden and was released on the ground. Ruslan was anxious – but the eagle swept down, caught and killed the rabbit with ease. Ruslan was beaming with pride and the eagle too seemed very pleased with herself – fluffing up all her feathers. She was able to eat a large part of the rabbit meat, until there was a visible bulge under her feathers!
Having the opportunity to stroke and hold the eagles myself made me appreciate just how strong Ruslan is! When he hunts in the winter for foxes and wolves he takes his eagle on horseback using a small forked stick to rest his eagle-carrying arm on while he rides. He laughed at my efforts, encouraging me to hold the eagle higher – rocking my hand back and forth to encourage the eagle to stretch their wings. I managed this just long enough to be captured on camera – before quickly supporting my eagle-arm against my side! I tried out my limited Kyrgyz – I’d learnt the words for eagle and the word beautiful that is used for animals. Ruslan smiled and corrected me – for him the word beautiful used for humans applies to both humans and eagles, they are in the same class.
That evening I watched Ruslan gently cleaning the eagles’ feet, applying a special cream to their talons. Now in an Adidas jacket rather than his eagle hunter finery, it was an intimate scene and I felt privileged to be seeing this nightly routine. Ruslan’s young daughter had found my white face quite unsettling – crying every time she saw me much to Ruslan’s amusement. However, seeing Ruslan with the eagle she was desperate to stroke the soft feathers and showed none of the fear I inspired in her!
The time I spent with the family was the highlight of an incredible trip to Kyrgyzstan. I learnt about this centuries-old tradition (now recognised by UNESCO as an endangered living form of cultural heritage) and made friends with the eagles and their family.
You can see more of my photography on my website and if you’d like to talk to me about photographing a love story (between people or eagles) or an adventure (a wedding, family outing or travel across the globe) I’d love to hear from you.