Mana, “The Hunter,” pets his golden eagle in Western Mongolia. Fewer than 500 golden eagle hunters remain in the world.
Mana is ancient. When he smiles, his leathery skin cracks with wrinkles that pull against the sides of his eyes. And Mana smiled a lot.
With admirable dedication bordering on mania, he told me repeatedly about the time he won the 2001 Annual Golden Eagle Festival in Mongolia. He is an eagle hunter, or as he would correct me, “The Hunter.” A proper noun for a proper champion.
The Hunter is a bit of a ham. A veteran actor with supporting cast of family members. His wife and kids stared blankly as Mana made the same tired jokes they had heard too many times before. The grandchildren rolled their eyes every time Mana told me one of his hunting exploits.
The young kids grew bored with my questions about eagles. They didn’t seem to care much about their grandfather’s occupation, and asked me for stories from the big city. After bugging me to lend them my iPhone, I set up the camera application and they gleefully ran around the house taking hundreds of photos, not one of which concerned the eagles.
Not many tourists make it out to the faraway province of Bayan-Olgii in Western Mongolia. To say it’s off the beaten path would be a gross understatement. The few travelers who do arrive in Bayan-Olgii every year invariably come to see the eagles. Mana has hosted tourists before, and you can tell he loves the attention. He is among the last practitioners of the ancient hunting tradition.
A Japanese couple visited his eagles in the late 1990s. They took a video of their trip and left the VHS tapes as a souvenir. Mana proudly handed me the tape, but without a television (or electricity), I wasn’t too sure what I should do with it. I don’t think he understood what a VHS is used for. The tape was covered in Japanese writing, and had clearly never been played.
I could tell that Mana wanted me to comment on the black plastic rectangle. Some response was necessary, so I uncertainly drummed my fingers on the cassette and gave an appreciative sigh. The sort of noise someone makes while admiring a confusing piece of modern art. Ahhhh ... ? Then, I placed the VHS on the table and waited for Mana’s approval.
My feigned adoration must have sounded authentic enough, because Mana decided to reward me with a trip to see his prized hunting eagles. I was excited; this was the reason I’d come to Bayan-Olgii.
Golden eagles are big. Unbelievably large – the size of a child or an adult torso. Scary big, especially when I looked at their claws. Similar to the velociraptor claw from Jurassic Park, the talons appeared more than capable of effortlessly separating flesh from bone. They mainly hunt marmots and small mammals, but the larger eagles can take down adult wolves.
Small populations in Central Asian centered around Western Mongolia are the only people in the world to hunt with eagles. While many cultures have traditionally used hawks, cormorants and falcons to kill prey, only select groups on the high steppe have managed to harness the size and ferocity of the golden eagle. There are estimates that fewer than 500 eagle hunters exist in the world.
Resting on my arm, the eagle was lighter than I expected, but still a hefty burden. One of my hands was raised to create a platform, while my other hand clutched a leash trailing from the eagle’s feet. I clung to the leash with white knuckled fervor. I was uncomfortable, but thrilled to be actually holding an eagle.
When I first held the eagle, it was hooded. I was perfectly comfortable with that. I drew some false sense of security from the fact that I could see the eagle while the eagle was forced to rest in ignorant darkness. Childish, but I’ll take my little victories. When The Hunter asked me if he should take off the eagle’s hood, I told him that it wasn’t necessary. I am a coward. Mana, The Hunter, saw that, and with a devilish smile, he pulled the hood off of the eagle’s face.
Its avian eyes sharpened instantly. Dilated pupils shrank in the bright sun. They focused on me. I was not The Hunter, and somehow, the eagle knew this. With a hiss more akin to a reptile sound than an avian creature, the eagle beat its wings, and tried to reposition itself to claw my face out. Those amber eyes fiercely conveyed a desire to kill me. There was no cute animal compassion or bovine stupidity in those eyes. They were predatory and looked at me with single-minded aggression.
Naturally, I freaked out and pulled my arm back. Without the platform, the eagle fell into the dirt. It kicked up plumes of dirt as its wings cartwheeled in a whirlwind motion. The flailing creature dangerously kicked out with its claws. I stared at the eagle with dimwitted interest. Finally, the eagle stood up and began to run/fly straight at me. The golden eagle was on attack mode and had become a thigh-high cannonball careening in my direction. Not sure what to do, I sort of just froze.
This was not the best decision.
Luckily, in the nick of time, Mana came to the rescue. Just before the eagle reached me, Mana spryly tackled the creature, and smothered it to the ground. The eagle fought him, but succumbed after Mana cooed into its ears and slowly re-hooded the bird. Finally, when the eagle had calmed down, Mana looked at me with clear disappointment, clicking his tongue and shaking his head. I was a second-rate eagle hunter.
So I guess I’ll never be an eagle hunter. The birds simply terrify me. It probably wasn’t a realistic career path in the first place, but at least I got the opportunity to hold a hunting eagle before the tradition dies out.
During my trip to Bayan-Olgii, it seemed like the world had moved on and passed eagle hunters by. The hunters had become relics of a bygone era. Mana’s grandchildren seemed to think so, and they couldn’t wait to attend school in the city. iPhones interested them more than eagles.
Like much in Mongolia, the fast-paced changes of a modern economy have accelerated certain aspects of society while leaving others by the wayside. The beautiful, dangerous eagles remain a tourist attraction for now, but I wonder how long the true practitioners will remain.
© The Durango Herald