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

9-year-old Dastan, the son of a Kazakh eagle hunter, rode his pony along mine, cantering easily and not using a saddle and guffawing at my makes an attempt to turn my fluffy pony some affection — a gesture that the animal wasn’t aware of.

Surrounding us used to be the huge, desolate panorama of the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. From the grassy valley the place horses grazed alongside the river, the rocky, gold-tinted terrain stretched eternally towards the jagged ridges within the distance, with a dusting of snow heralding the coming of iciness.

On horseback with Dastan, I used to be reminded in many ways of my formative years in Wales, the place I spent my days using my pony during the geographical region, taking part in the quiet herbal great thing about my environment, all the time with a scorching cup of tea looking ahead to me on the finish of a protracted day.

In October 2019, after virtually 3 years residing and dealing in northern Iraq, the place I coated the rustic’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State, I started running on a private pictures challenge that drew on my background and affinity with horses. My purpose used to be to discover the relationships between animals — horses, specifically — and the folk whose livelihoods rely on them.

To start out, I flew to western Mongolia to satisfy and the long-lasting Kazakh hunters, horsemen and animal herders.

With the assistance of an area information and translator, I traveled from the city of Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii province, to discuss with one of the crucial seminomadic herding households who proceed to are living off the land in an especially harsh surroundings.

Encompassing the westernmost space of Mongolia, Bayan-Olgii is the rustic’s most effective Muslim and Kazakh-majority province, or aimag.

Deep within the Altai Mountains, the place Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet, Kazakh folks have for hundreds of years evolved and nurtured a unique bond with golden eagles, coaching the birds to seek foxes and different small animals.

Alankush, an eagle hunter, animal herder and father of 2, mentioned that he takes care of his eagle “as though she have been a toddler.”

The traditional customized of searching with eagles on horseback is historically handed down from father to son at a tender age and is thought of as a perfect supply of delight.

“All Kazakhs love to coach eagles,” mentioned Alankush. “Now we stay eagles most commonly as it’s a standard game.”

Serik Gingsbek, who used to be 26 once I met him, is a well known and completed eagle hunter, sportsman and horse teacher. He talked at period with me about his particular courting together with his eagle.

“If my eagle feels dangerous, I believe dangerous,” he mentioned. “If she’s glad, I’m glad. Once we move to the mountains, we percentage the whole thing in combination.”

In fresh generations, many Kazakh households have migrated from the geographical region to city spaces, in part on account of the difficulties in having access to well being care, training, social products and services and employment alternatives. Amongst those that have stayed, the traditional follow of eagle searching has supplied an extra supply of source of revenue from the guests who pay to peer the famed birds in motion.

Coaching and taking care of golden eagles is only one side of an animal herder’s lifestyles; others come with coaching younger horses, tending sheep, milking yaks and butchering meat.

The day-to-day calls for of a standard herding circle of relatives’s lifestyles can go away little time for extra training or the pursuit of private ambitions clear of house.

In line with their bodily difficult existence, oldsters who paintings as herders ceaselessly ship their kids to boarding faculty in cities and towns, occasionally some distance from house, within the hope that their kids will protected a extra at ease long run.

Regardless of having lived his complete lifestyles within the mountains, Alankush mentioned he hopes for a distinct trail for his kids. “I don’t have an training, and I’m now not younger,” he advised me. “If I have been younger, possibly I’d move to Olgii to paintings — however for me it’s higher to stick within the geographical region.”

“Geographical region lifestyles may be very laborious, particularly for youngsters,” he mentioned. “That’s why I ship my kids to college. In the event that they end college, I am hoping they’ll to find jobs within the town.”

Satirically, such parental ambitions would possibly end result within the eventual disappearance of a tradition and way of living that has survived for generations.

Outwardly, documenting the normal tactics of lifestyles in western Mongolia stands in stark distinction to my time spent photographing scenes of war and struggling in Iraq. However the two topics percentage a commonplace theme: the human fight now not simply to live to tell the tale, however to construct a greater long run for oneself and one’s circle of relatives.

That common fight will also be present in eventualities of war, career and compelled emigration, simply as it may be discovered within the instances of a nomadic folks subsisting on what many would imagine meager sources.

And regardless of the diversities within the environment and the scope of the demanding situations confronted via the folk I met, I felt a connection — and shared a commonplace language — with the Kazakh horsemen, thru our mutual affinity with horses.

Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who makes a speciality of war, humanitarian and environmental crises and social problems. You’ll be able to observe her paintings on Instagram and Twitter.


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