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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December 2004, 14:45 GMT
Kazakhstan's eagle-hunters
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, Nura, Kazakhstan

The village of Nura is a humble enough place, its rows of small houses lined up along muddy streets in the shadow of the Tien Shan mountains in the south-eastern corner of Kazakhstan.

Most vehicles on the main highway drive straight past.

Mukhamed Isabekov and eagle (picture Christopher Herwig)
Hunting with eagles is thriving again after being banned for years

But Nura has become a focus for the promotion of one of the Kazakh people's most cherished nomadic traditions.

During the winter hunting season, a visitor to the empty plains around the village will often catch sight of one of the classic images of the Central Asian steppe - a hunter in a big fur hat, on horseback, with a huge golden eagle perched on his wrist, or swooping through the air.

The mountains and open steppe around Nura have long been a favourite feeding and nesting area for Central Asian birds of prey like the eagle and the falcon.

Partly for this reason, this little village has become the home of 14 berkutchi - proponents of the Central Asian sport of eagle-hunting.

There are only about 40 officially recognised eagle-hunters in Kazakhstan today, so Nura is unusual in having such a large number.

Kazakh interest in eagle-hunting has been growing since the republic became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mukhamed Isabekov and eagle (picture Christopher Herwig)
A person has to be wise to deal with a large, wild animal like an eagle. You have be tough, and patient
Mukhamed Isabekov

Hunting with eagles was discouraged in Soviet days, because it was considered an elite sport.

But many Kazakhs today are keen to rediscover the traditions of their nomadic past, and on Thursday hunters from all over Kazakhstan gathered in the capital, Astana, for an Independence Day festival to show off their birds' hunting skills and promote their sport.

"We say that hunting with eagles is an art," said Mukhamed Isabekov, a Nura resident and deputy head of Kazakhstan's Association of Hunting Bird Owners.

"A person has to be wise to deal with a large, wild animal like an eagle. You have be tough and patient. That's why there are so few eagle-hunters. Many people want to be, but then realise it's not for them," he said.

Ancient sport

With help from the United Nations, the berkutchi of Nura have built a small museum where they display photographs showing the history of Kazakh eagle-hunting, and examples of the handicrafts connected to the sport - tough leather gloves, the leather hoods used to cover the eagles' eyes to keep them calm, and wrist supports needed to carry a bird weighing up to five kilograms in the saddle for long periods of time.

Visitors can now spend a day in Nura, visiting the museum and going out with the hunters.

Afterwards they are treated to a meal of traditional rice and meat plov, and one of the berkutchi will sing Kazakh hunting songs, accompanying himself on the dombra, a sort of two-stringed Kazakh lute.

Aldebergen Shalipov lives in a village behind the mountains. He took up eagle-hunting five years ago, and now spends the winter hunting season in Nura, working with Isabekov.

Aldebergen Shalipov and eagle (picture Christopher Herwig)
The hunters are helping protect the country's threatened eagles

"When I was a child," he said, "I used to go hunting on foot with dogs, but I always dreamed of holding an eagle in my hands. My grandfather was a berkutchi, so when I grew up I took up eagle-hunting. Now my eldest son also hunts with eagles, and my youngest son hunts with hawks."

Historians say that hunting with birds of prey probably began in the Central Asian steppe centuries ago, when men began using the birds to catch hares and foxes for food.

It has long been a favoured sport of Central Asian rulers, Isabekov said.

"We know from history that Genghis Khan had 1,000 hunting birds - eagles, falcons and gyrfalcons - and so did Kubla Khan. There were protected areas in the steppe marked with stones where only the khans were allowed to hunt," he said.

Today the UN and the Kazakh environmental authorities hope to make use of the berkutchis' skills to help protect Kazakhstan's endangered eagle population.

All recognised berkutchis have to be trained in the proper care of their eagles, and they now help the authorities to keep track of eagles' nesting sites across this huge country.

Traditionally, wild baby eagles were taken from the nest to be trained as hunting birds, but under new legislation this practice will be strictly limited.


SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Kazakhstan
26 Oct 04 |  Country profiles


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