Inside the Lives of Mongolia’s Famous Eagle Hunters



Slide 1 of 11: “When you see a group of eagle hunters charging up a mountain on horseback, you realize how Mongolia almost conquered the world back with Genghis Khan,” says Cedric Angeles. “They are almost at one with their animals.” The New Orleans–based photographer, whose work focuses on disappearing cultures and traditions, first met a group of Mongolian eagle hunters during a trip to the country nearly a decade ago—and even then, he knew he had to go back. “I really fell in love with the country—the landscapes, the people, and the hospitality,” he says. “But I was also fascinated by the relationships between the hunters and the eagles themselves.” Traditionally, hunters have partnered with eagles to survive by using them to capture animals for food.
The Mongolian eagle hunters, who lead nomadic lives and spend much of the year living in portable yurts, or gers as they're known, are with their eagles almost every second of the day, and even allow them to live inside their homes like a family member. Angeles recently spent 10 days alongside a group of these hunters—led by a man named Dalaikhan, who is striving to keep the dying tradition alive—and traveled across Mongolia's wild terrain to an annual eagle festival held in Ulgii, a town located in the westernmost part of the country. During that time Angeles rode horses with them, hunted with them, shared meals with them, and of course, photographed them. “It was heaven for me, as a photographer, because there was such simplicity in the way they lived that it allowed me to truly focus,” he says. “There were no distractions.”
Slide 2 of 11: “In western Mongolia there are no trees at all. It's completely barren, almost like the moon, and you can see for miles. But even when you're in the middle of nowhere you come across herds of horses. As a culture, Mongolians are incredibly close with the animals around them—they're part of their survival. This photograph was taken on the way to Dalaikhan's winter camp in the Altai Mountains. It was such a beautiful scene, and it happened really quickly. In fact it's a little blurry because as soon as I saw it happening, I just picked up the camera and shot it, hoping that something would come out.”
Slide 3 of 11: “Early one morning I joined Dalaikhan as he was rounding up his horses to get ready for the trek to Ulgii for the eagle festival. The waistcoat he's wearing is very commonly worn among the eagle hunters, and is made with the fur of a fox he caught with his eagle. While he was born in Mongolia, his family is from Kazakhstan—in fact, eagle hunting is originally a Kazakh tradition, which is why so much of it is practiced in western Mongolia, right near the border.”
Slide 4 of 11: “This portrait of Dalaikhan was taken inside his permanent winter home, where he lives with his wife, son, and daughter. His nickname, ağası, means big brother in Kazakh. A lot of the eagle hunters that we traveled with look up to him—he's their leader in a way. He's also very involved with the eagle festival and wants to revive the tradition of eagle hunting, which is dying out because less and less of the younger generation want to do it. There are portraits of Dalaikhan with his eagle, like the one hanging in the top right corner, all throughout the house.”

Slide 5 of 11: “The hunters have very close relationships with their eagles—they're like children to them. The eagle lives in the house, is held by the hunter almost all of the time, and only responds to the voice of their own hunter. The bond is that strong. This was taken just before Dalaikhan fed his eagle, which is still wearing the hood used during hunts, inside his kitchen. It was too cold outside for the eagle to catch its own food. He took rabbit meat that had been caught earlier that day and warmed it in warm water so that eagle would think it was fresh kill.”
Slide 6 of 11: “One day during the trip we stopped at the winter home of another eagle hunter, and I caught sight of this fox—presumably once caught by an eagle—hanging next to a wedding picture on the wall. It was a regular house built with stone and cement, but, traditionally, each hunter also has a ger that they use when traveling with their animals to events like the eagle festival. It's amazing to see: Each day they break the ger down, put it in the back of a truck, and move on to the next spot and rebuild it.”
Slide 7 of 11: “This Kazakh saddle is probably the most beautiful—and uncomfortable—saddle on the planet. It's incredibly hard to sit on so the hunters strap a pillow on the top to soften it. The baldak, which hangs down the side, is slung over the hunter's arm for the eagle to perch on throughout the journey. Every hunter designs his own: some are very simple and others are very ornate. This one is made out of bone and has been decorated with small beads. Another hunter I met had carved his out of wood.”
Slide 8 of 11: “I took this photograph while we were high up on a horseshoe-shaped ridge. There were actually seven or so other hunters outside the frame, and the rolling hills in the background are the kind they traverse up and down on their horses every day. I captured the image just a few seconds before the eagle swooped down to catch a hare running below. They traditionally only use female eagles because they're fiercer and bigger, and tend to take them in when they're around four years old to be trained. A decade later, the eagle is released back into the wild.”
Slide 9 of 11: “Before meeting up with eight other eagle hunters, I traveled with just Askar and Dalaikhan for the first two days. Neither of them spoke much English so our relationship was mostly based off smiling, pointing, or making signs and hand signals to each other. It was really beautiful to communicate that way, and I especially bonded with Askar. The goodbyes at the end of the trip were really tough.”

Slide 10 of 11: “This portrait, which is part of a whole series, was taken of one of the eagle hunters we met up with halfway through the journey. I had him pose in front a piece of fabric draped across the ger we had stayed in the previous night—I found it inside the ger and asked my hosts if I could borrow it. For me, that fabric encompasses all of the brilliant color you find in Mongolian culture.”
Slide 11 of 11: “The hospitality among Mongolians is a legendary thing. As soon as you walk inside someone's home, they will immediately serve you tea with yak milk, along with numerous plates of cheese, candy and cookies. Carpets are laid out on the floor for you to sleep on, and the host will always give up their best spot in the ger for you. Often, we'd walk up to gers in the middle of nowhere and just knock on the door and ask to spend the night. No one ever turned us away.”

“When you see a group of eagle hunters charging up a mountain on horseback, you realize how Mongolia almost conquered the world back with Genghis Khan,” says Cedric Angeles. “They are almost at one with their animals.” The New Orleans–based photographer, whose work focuses on disappearing cultures and traditions, first met a group of Mongolian eagle hunters during a trip to the country nearly a decade ago—and even then, he knew he had to go back. “I really fell in love with the country—the landscapes, the people, and the hospitality,” he says. “But I was also fascinated by the relationships between the hunters and the eagles themselves.” Traditionally, hunters have partnered with eagles to survive by using them to capture animals for food.

The Mongolian eagle hunters, who lead nomadic lives and spend much of the year living in portable yurts, or gers as they’re known, are with their eagles almost every second of the day, and even allow them to live inside their homes like a family member. Angeles recently spent 10 days alongside a group of these hunters—led by a man named Dalaikhan, who is striving to keep the dying tradition alive—and traveled across Mongolia’s wild terrain to an annual eagle festival held in Ulgii, a town located in the westernmost part of the country. During that time Angeles rode horses with them, hunted with them, shared meals with them, and of course, photographed them. “It was heaven for me, as a photographer, because there was such simplicity in the way they lived that it allowed me to truly focus,” he says. “There were no distractions.”

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