Thursday, March 9, 2017

Eagle Hunting at Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Huge and famished, circling high
O'er cliffs that prop the sky,
She plummets down with talons splayed,
Which no prey may hope evade.

Serga. That was the name of the golden eagle we hunted with one cold January afternoon on the southern shore of Kyrgyzstan's Lake Issyk-Kul. When we met her she was hooded, her piercing eyes shrouded from sight, but this didn't keep her from detecting our approach and screeching in response. The hood ensures that she doesn't constantly scan her surroundings for prey to satiate her hunger and work herself up into a fluster in the process. The hood keeps her calm, though I doubt any of us would have had the same reaction to having our sight forcibly stolen from us.

Our small group of tourists and local hunters set off on horseback in the direction of the lake. Serga rode on a stiff elbow-length leather glove, which could fit into the groove of a wooden stick if the hunter wanted to relieve himself of the bird's 30-pound weight. Her owner is a fourth-generation eagle hunter, and she'd been hatched for this purpose. Only the hunter and his apprentice carried the eagle, and she had to be unhooded each time she was handed over to a new bears, so that she knew whom she was riding with. Occasionally she would freak out when her master wasn't close by and would flap about wildly, flying off her perch and getting caught up in the rope holding her to the glove.

We rode amidst the rolling hills, their northern flanks dusted with snow, with the view to the south ever of mountains and the scooped-up valley wherein lay the village of Bokonbaevo. The slopes we ascended and descended were steep and covered in loose stones and pebbles, but our horses were sure-footed and managed these approaches without so much as a stumble. On the flatter regions, we were able to kick our horses up to a faster pace, only at which time did their unique personalities seem to emerge. My horse was a stallion, but he was rather even-tempered, at least when he wasn't too close to any of the mares.

We stopped at a dozen or so high vantage points, at which time the eagle hunters unhooded the bird of prey and unleashed her searching gaze on the rocks and detritus below. The two hunters who weren't holding the eagle threw stones out into the brush to try to scare out any game. Foxes, hares, jackals and even wolves range these parts; nevertheless, we were ultimately unsuccessful in our hunt.

Not wanting to leave the tourists disappointed or the eagle to go hungry, the hunters initiated a mock kill with a fox skin. The deflated stretch of fur was tied to a rope, the other end of which was in the hand of one of the hunters, who was sitting astride his saddle. The rider then whipped his mount into a frenzy and off he went. Meanwhile, the hunter with the eagle had climbed a nearby hill and untied his prized predator. When the signal was given, the eagle swooped down in an explosion of power like a spring released from a tight compression. Riding the frosty air and without a single beat of her wings, the hunter honed in on her prey and descended on it within seconds. Well-trained, she smothered her prize with her wings and waited patiently, if not quietly, for her master to arrive. Getting her to relinquish the "kill" from her massive talons, however, wasn't possible until he'd pulled out some meat from a satchel and had offered her a fair exchange. An overall impressive demonstration, indeed.

January 7, 2017

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