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Lights, Camera, Eagles

January 20, 2011

The men rode on horseback, single-file, eagles on their arms. In the sky the sun hung low, casting them in gold, and the eagles looked odd weighed down by their masters instead of flying high above. In time, they would get their chance to soar, for the men were off on a hunt. It was an ancient tableau – the nomad and his eagle, the snowy peaks and placid sky, no road before them but the hoofmarks of those who had came before. In the background stood rusty mountains, containing all sorts of possible prey. It could only be there that the hunters were headed, to flush out game and snatch it with their birds.  They marched on with excitement for what must lie ahead. But just as the moment became most cinematic, someone yelled “Stop!” and the men heeled their horses. The scene was over. The director had gotten his shot.

These hunters weren’t on a real hunt – they were playing dress-up for cameras. A crew from a local TV channel had come out to the countryside to shoot a short documentary on the Kyrgyz tradition of hunting with eagles, but for some reason they weren’t terribly interested in seeing the real thing. The real deal was something far different from the images they made for television. The hunters don’t go out wearing ornamental robes. They wear the same grungy sweaters they do every day. A lot of the times, the hunt isn’t even on horseback. They stuff their eagles in whatever 4WD vehicle they can find and grind up the mountain roads in well-heated comfort. But truth be told, these realities make for poor TV. Modern life lacked real romance, so a glorified past stood in for the real thing.

This ‘real deal,’ the authentic hunt, was something I had been looking for since I got to Kyrgyzstan. All autumn I waited, going to the hunting festivals that were thrown before hunting season began with the white months. But at these festivals, there was no hunting to be seen. At every one, the main event was the same. A wolf was brought and chained to an anchor, and placed in the middle of a field. The hunters took to higher ground. If there was none, they improvised – one time, it was a stack of tires, plastered with mud; another time, an hydraulic cherry picker. From there, they threw their birds into their air, hoping they would swoop down on the helpless canine cowering below. Yet most of the time, the eagles refused to take the bait. After all, birds in the wild usually won’t risk their lives on such big game, unless they’re desperate. This wasn’t the wild, though. It was an artificial environment set up for the pleasure of the crowd. So every once in a while, the crowd would egg on an eagle to get enough gruff to land on the wolf and stick its talons in its back. The horde in the stands whooped and wailed. This, they must have thought, is hunting.

I had spoken to the hunters and I knew better. It was actually rather rare to land a wolf. Most often, the eagles grabbed a rabbit or a fox, which made for fine furs anyways. But in any case, I still knew these things only from hearsay. Winter had come and the hunt had eluded me. For weeks, I was stuck in Bishkek, chasing girls and editing field recordings. Now that I finally got out to the country beyond, I thought I might see what I had come here for. Almaz had invited me out for the documentary shoot. There would be no chanting crowds this time, just the crew and the hunters and me. It seemed like the time had finally come. When Almaz picked us up, though, it became apparent there would be no hunt. There was a wolf caged up in his trailer. Inspecting it, I was a little confused. Where were the fangs and the blood-stained claws? It just looked like a big dog. He had bought it from the zoo, he told us. This docile creature, nearly domesticated, would be our prey for the day.

After a short drive, we were at our studio, a picturesque valley made for film. The rusty mountains were framed just right and the wolf was prepared for its big scene. The cage door was lifted. Everybody held their breath, waiting for it to dart into the distance, but it went nowhere. It looked confused. Slinking out with its tail between its legs, the wolf attracted my sympathy. My companions, though, grew impatient, and threw snowballs and rocks to rile it up, shouting and hollering. Meanwhile, I grew disturbed and disillusioned. Was this what I had come here to see? Cameras on tripods and young men throwing stones at dogs? In their attempt to bring this spectacle to the public, the hunters had somehow gone astray from the hunt. In place of practice was performance. The real deal would have to wait for another day.

As the cameras rolled and the eagles took their turns flying sheepishly away, I wondered if this search for the authentic was folly.  An anthropologist doesn’t record what he wants to record – he writes it as he sees it. These festivals and TV showcases may not be the hunting I so dearly wanted to study, sure, but now they are as much a fact of a hunter’s life as the hunt itself. I needed to give up on my dream, I thought, of the hunter and the bird and the mountains and me. The cameras were there and the wolves were too. So it would be. I opened my notebook and recorded the scene. “The director yells action. The eagle flies through the sky…”


Bonus KeenonKyrgyzstan Video: Eagle hunters gather before the filmshoot – that’s a lot of eagles in one place!


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Vincenzo permalink
    January 26, 2011 2:42 pm

    Another well written article, sir. Although I am a bit confused. If you are unable to view the actual hunt, what seasons of the year does this occur, or why does it cease to occur in this season? Forgive my ignorance when it comes to Kyrgyz eagle hunting season…

    Hope all is well, my friend. Good luck with the continued ventures, as I usually try stay abreast with your posts here as a fellow anthropologist (at least in my undergrad studies).

    • January 27, 2011 9:04 am

      Hunting season is indeed winter, but I just haven’t been invited yet to the real deal. Hopefully it will happen soon.

      Glad you’re liking the writing and hope you’re doing well.

  2. February 8, 2011 5:40 pm

    Hi there

    We wanted to share a great clip with you. It’s of a Kazakh hunter in Mongolia hunting with a golden eagle. A tiny camera strapped to the eagle gives an eagle-eyed view of the Altai mountains as it swoops on its prey. This sequence was shot last year while making the documentary series Human Planet.

    Take a look at the clip on the BBC Human Planet Explorer website at

    or on YouTube at

    Both of these are embeddable on your blog.

    Human Planet is an 8 part series about the relationship with the natural world. You can find more information about it at I’m the producer of the website.

    All the best


  1. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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