On Horseback Among the many Eagle Hunters and Herders of the Mongolian Altai

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Nine-year-old Dastan, the son of a Kazakh eagle hunter, rode his pony next to mine, galloping effortlessly bareback, and giggling at my attempts to show some affection for my fluffy pony – a gesture the animal was not used to.

All around us was the wide, barren landscape of the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. From the grassy valley where horses grazed along the river, the rocky, gold-colored terrain stretched endlessly towards the jagged ridges in the distance, with a dust of snow heralding the arrival of winter.

On horseback with Dastan, I was in some ways reminded of my childhood in Wales, where I spent my days riding my pony through the countryside and enjoying the serene natural beauty of my surroundings, with a hot cup of tea always waiting for me End of a long day.

In October 2019, after living and working in Northern Iraq for almost three years, reporting on the country’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State, I began working on a personal photography project based on my background and affinity for horses . My aim was to study the relationships between animals – horses in particular – and the people who depend on them for a living.

At the beginning I flew to Western Mongolia to meet and take photos of the legendary Kazakh hunters, riders and animal herders.

With the help of a local guide and translator, I traveled from the city of Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii Province, to visit some of the semi-nomadic herding families who continue to live in an extremely harsh rural environment.

Bayan-Olgii covers the westernmost area of ​​Mongolia and is the country’s only Muslim and Kazakh majority province, or aimag.

Deep in the Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet, the Kazakhs have for centuries built and fostered a special relationship with golden eagles in order to train the birds to hunt foxes and other small animals.

Alankush, an eagle hunter, animal herder and father of two, said he looked after his eagle “as if she were a baby”.

The old custom of hunting with eagles on horseback is traditionally passed on from father to son at a young age and is considered a great source of pride.

“All Kazakhs love to train eagles,” said Alankush. “Now we mainly keep eagles because it’s a traditional sport.”

Serik Gingsbek, who was 26 years old when I met him, is a well-known and accomplished eagle hunter, athlete and horse trainer. He spoke to me at length about his special relationship with his eagle.

“When my eagle is feeling bad, I feel bad,” he said. “If she is happy, then I am happy. When we go to the mountains, we share everything. “

In recent generations, many Kazakh families have migrated from the countryside to urban areas, partly due to difficulties in accessing health care, education, social services and employment opportunities. Among those who have stayed, the ancient practice of eagle hunting has created an additional source of income for the visitors who pay to see the famous birds in action.

The training and care of golden eagles is only one aspect of a herder’s life. others include training young horses, tending sheep, milking yaks, and slaughtering meat.

The daily demands of a traditional herding family’s life can leave little time for additional education or pursuit of personal ambitions away from home.

In response to their physically demanding lifestyles, parents who work as shepherds often send their children to boarding schools in cities, sometimes far from home, in the hope that their children will secure a more comfortable future.

Although Alankush has lived in the mountains all his life, he hopes for a different path for his children. “I have no education and I’m not young,” he told me. “If I were young I might go to Olgii to work – but it’s better for me to stay in the country.”

“Life in the country is very difficult, especially for children,” he said. “That’s why I send my children to school. When they finish university, I hope they can find work in town. “

Paradoxically, such parental ambitions can lead to the disappearance of a culture and way of life that has survived for generations.

Outwardly, the documentation of the traditional way of life in Western Mongolia is in stark contrast to my time, which I spent photographing scenes of conflict and suffering in Iraq. However, both topics have a common theme: the human struggle not only for survival, but also for a better future for himself and his family.

This universal struggle is found in situations of conflict, occupation, and forced emigration, as well as in the circumstances of a nomadic people who live on what many would consider scarce resources.

And despite the differences in the environment and the scale of the challenges people faced, our mutual affinity for horses made me feel connected to the Kazakh riders – and shared a common language.

Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on conflict, humanitarian and environmental crises and social issues. You can follow her work on Instagram and Twitter.