Learning to Fly: Mongolia’s Golden Eagle Hunters Featured on 60 Minutes

Learning to Fly: Mongolia’s Golden Eagle Hunters Featured on 60 Minutes

Out in the forbidding expanse of the Altai Mountains where Mongolia converges with Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, a dwindling number of Kazakh nomads carry on a 6,000-year-old traditionhunting with magnificent golden eagles, one of the world’s largest predatory birds.

Known as berkutchi, these eagle hunters — and, in recent years, huntresses — have spent years developing deep bonds with their birds, harnessing the animal’s keen eyesight, speed, and agility to catch foxes, rabbits, marmots, or even the occasional wolf. In an area with almost no arable land, these extraordinary creatures are essential to the nomads’ everyday survival, providing them with enough food and clothing to endure life in one of the world’s harshest environments.

The Golden Eagle festival in Uglii, Mongolia. Photo: Michel Behar

Mongolia’s Kazakh nomads have practiced the tradition of hunting with golden eagles for thousands of years
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Meet Mongolia’s Eagle Hunters!

You can witness Mongolia’s extraordinary eagle hunters in action on MIR’s Mongolia’s Golden Eagle Festival small group tour, led by one of MIR’s most popular tour managers, Michel Behar. Travelers on the tour attend the annual Golden Eagle Festival, where every autumn, ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters test their birds’ speed, skill, and training as they sight “game,” strike, and return to the hunter’s wrist. The journey includes an exploration of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, and a jaunt through the fabled Gobi Desert.

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The Golden Eagle festival in Uglii, Mongolia. Photo: Michel Behar

A fine day to fly at the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Eagle Hunting Hits the Big Time

Golden eagle hunting has started to gain worldwide attention, thanks to the soaring popularity of films like “The Eagle Huntress” and broadcasts on major news and travel outlets.

On October 21, 2018, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a new episode that took viewers on a journey into the Mongolian Altai to meet with these famed eagle hunters. Written by CBS correspondent Scott Pelley, the story features passionate American falconer and anthropologist Lauren McGough, who lived with the Kazakh nomads of Mongolia for five years learning how to hunt with golden eagles.

A golden eagle’s wingspan can reach six feet, flying at speeds up to 190 mph
Photo credit: Nomadic Expeditions

McGough is considered one of the world’s best falconers today, and is one of the few females to have been allowed to learn the ancient Kazakh art of eagle hunting. In the story, she discusses what first drew her to this age-old nomadic tradition:

This is the most ancient form of falconry in the world. This is where it all began. It’s the cradle. So, several thousand years ago — we don’t know precisely when — a man saw an eagle catch a rabbit or a fox and had the ingenious idea to hunt in partnership with it. It blows my mind that it’s even real. It’s like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” But you can do it.

The Golden Eagle festival in Uglii, Mongolia. Photo: Michel Behar

A Kazakh berkutchi, or eagle handler, and his hunting companion
Photo credit: Michel Behar

McGough also noted that the strong emotional bonds Kazakh eagle hunters develop with their birds is part of what gives eagle hunting such an instinctually special appeal:

These are the people that can talk to animals. Because they have relationships with goats, sheep, horses, camels, eagles. They have intimate knowledge of where snow leopards are and foxes are. There’s no agriculture here because the land’s not arable. So, they’ve ingeniously learned to domesticate animals and then build these unique relationships with wild animals.

The Golden Eagle festival in Uglii, Mongolia. Photo: Michel Behar

Eagle hunters display their beautiful birds
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Watch the Exclusive 60 Minutes Story Online!

Check out the full video of the story, as well as a special online-only segment of a hunt from an eagle’s perspective, on the 60 Minutes website.

The Golden Eagle festival in Uglii, Mongolia. Photo: Michel Behar

Mongolia’s annual Golden Eagle Festival takes place every fall in Bayan-Ulgii, the remote, westernmost part of the country where many ethnic Kazakhs live
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Going for the Gold

Today, it’s estimated that there are only about 300 eagle hunters left to pass down their ancient and all-but-forgotten art to the next generation. These hunters continue to celebrate and preserve their traditions and culture at the Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival, which takes place every year during the first week of October.

The Golden Eagle festival in Uglii, Mongolia. Photo: Michel Behar

A young eagle handler learns the ropes
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Set in the remote, westernmost region of Bayan-Ulgii, the festival begins with a parade to highlight the craftsmanship of the traditional costumes and hunting gear, and continues with an evening performance in honor of the participants. The next day’s competition finds the eagles attacking fox skins dragged by their trainers, with judges evaluating their skill at hitting the target, their diving speed, and gripping technique. It’s a truly unique cultural experience — one that should be seen firsthand to be fully appreciated.


As Lauren McGough explained in her interview on 60 Minutes:

This is where man first figured out that he could have a relationship with a raptor. And what a loss would it be for humanity if it was gone. We can take an individual eagle and bring it — from the spectrum of wild all the way to tame, and then wild again. And we get to see what they’re capable of — up close and in person…if that understanding of eagles and animals were to leave, that’s not a world I want to live in.

Tour Manager Michel Behar at the Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia. Photo: Michel Behar

MIR Tour Manager Michel Behar poses with an eagle at the Golden Eagle Festival
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Meet with Mongolia’s Eagle Hunters!

Experience the extraordinary art of eagle hunting firsthand on MIR’s celebratory small group tour, Mongolia’s Golden Eagle Festival. With MIR veteran tour manager Michel Behar leading the way, travelers will fly to the remote Mongolian outback to attend the annual Golden Eagle Festival, where the eagle hunters display their birds’ speed, skill, and training, as well as the deep bond that forms between bird and human. Along the way, they’ll explore Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, with its Buddhist and nomadic heritage, as well as the fabled Gobi Desert.

There’s only one departure of this one-of-a-kind tour in 2019, so act now to reserve your space! Contact us by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289.

 

Travel to Mongolia with MIR
A Golden Eagle ready for take-off in Mongolia at the Golden Eagle Festival. Photo: Michel Behar

An eagle takes flight at the Golden Eagle Festival
Photo credit: Michel Behar

MIR has more than 30 years of experience handcrafting tours to Mongolia. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

You can witness Mongolia’s extraordinary eagle hunters in action on MIR’s Mongolia’s Golden Eagle Festival small group tour, led by one of MIR’s most popular tour managers, Michel Behar. Travelers on the tour attend the annual Golden Eagle Festival, where every autumn, ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters test their birds’ speed, skill, and training as they sight “game,” strike, and return to the hunter’s wrist. The journey includes an exploration of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, and a jaunt through the fabled Gobi Desert.

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your travels today.

(Top photo: Eagle hunters get ready to take to the field at the Golden Eagle Festival. Photo credit: Michel Behar.)

PUBLISHED: October 23, 2018

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