ASTANA – Cold has descended on the Kazakh Steppe, a vast region of that Central Asian nation where copious snow covers the landscape and golden eagles fly at the command of their falconers.
Falconry, the art of raising, caring for and training eagles, falcons and other raptors, or birds of prey, is an ancestral practice and national tradition of the Kazakh people, handed down from one generation to the next.
Thirty kilometers (18 miles) from Astana, in the heart of the Kazakh Steppe, 18 men gather frequently to share knowledge of their craft and command their birds to flight.
Bakdaulet Babazhan, winner of Kazakhstan’s most recent falconry competition, works with an eagle.
“The eagle symbolizes freedom and is part of our national flag,” Babazhan said with his raptor resting on his falconer’s glove.
Moments later he orders his eagle to fly and, while it’s in the air, explains the techniques involved in falconry, known in the Kazakh language as “burkitshy.”
“An eagle or any other bird trained (to hunt game) should fly 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) and return to his trainer’s hand,” Babazhan said.
Kapsalgan carries out the order, flying above the snowy steppe, gliding through the air and then coming to rest once again on his trainer’s arm.
“The next step in the training consists of (the raptor) picking up an artificial bird that’s tied to a horse and taking it back to its owner’s hand,” the falconer said.
“Later the bird will need to hunt a rabbit, a fox or any other animal. That’s the third stage in the training and also of the competitions in our country that date back to our nomadic era,” Babazhan says while Kapsalgan rests on his shoulder.
“Kapsalgan is four years old and he only heeds my voice. He’s not afraid of wild animals. I’m very proud of this eagle, which has caught wolves on two occasions,” his owner added.
Babazhan said he inherited his passion for falconry from his ancestors.
“Since I was a child, I’ve been interested in birds. I began training Kapsalgan when he was born. It’s not easy, but when the bird follows all your commands it gives you an immense feeling of satisfaction,” the hunter said.
Kazakhstan is intent on keeping alive this age-old tradition, which the Agriculture Ministry is seeking to popularize.
“Birds of prey are part of Kazakhstan’s history. They played an important role in the life and culture of nomads for thousands of years,” the vice president of the Agriculture Ministry’s Forest and Wildlife Committee, Nariman Zhunusov, told EFE.
“This type of hunting represents a certain attitude toward nature,” the ministry representative said.
“Hunting with eagles is the most interesting and honest type of hunting, without the use of firearms or other modern techniques,” Zhunusov added.
The staging of tournaments and efforts to support falconry are attempts to conserve these birds of prey, which are now in danger of extinction.
The Kansonar association, which addresses the concerns of hunters and issues affecting the hunting sector, has registered more than 165 species of birds of prey, Zhunusov added.
Kazakhstan is home to a total of 489 bird species – 396 of which nest within the country’s territory and 93 that fly there in the winter and migrate in the spring and fall.
Breeders that specialize in rare or threatened species of raptors have breeded 738 saker falcons and 15 golden eagles in a natural habitat.
In 2010, UNESCO inscribed falconry to its Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.