By Hannah Stevens @Hannahshewans
Scroll down for the full story
Videographer / director: Joel Santos
Producer: Hannah Stevens, Nick Johnson
Editor: Joshua Douglas
In 2015 and 2016, videographer and photographer Joel Santos travelled for several days across Mongolia to reach their remote homes of the Kazakh nomads and witness the stringent training they endure to bond with their eagles.
With only around 400 traditional eagle hunters left in the world, the custom is precious and unless your father was an eagle hunter, you cannot become one.
Joel said: “Interestingly enough, not every son of an eagle hunter wants to become one - as we might assume - since it’s a very hard life involving a lot of training and physical prowess.
“They have to endure many hours of horse riding with a 7 to 9kg golden eagle on their arms in extremely cold weather.”
Each eagle is taken from the wild at a young age - either straight from the nest or once the mother has taught them basic hunting skills - and hunters will embark on rigorous training to hone their skills.
Initially, to earn the birds trust, hunters will use a rope swing to slightly throw the bird off balance to gently encourage them to seek the eagle hunter for rest.
Once the eagle has begun to see the hunter as a companion, the hunter will create a unique call for the eagle to return to during hunts and competitions.
Santos added: “Let me say that the hunting process is extremely respectful in every way: the better the eagle is at hunting, the sooner it is returned to the wild to live its life as a free eagle.
“The hunter’s only hunt what they need meat wise, so it’s not a kind of sport. When several hunters gather for hunting, the first and biggest caught prey goes to the eldest hunter.
“All in all, the code of honour is amazing and has an inherent respect for age, nature and order.”
The photographer visited four different eagle hunter families while in the region - headed by Essen and Sailau, Sailau and Berik, Agalai and Aishol Pan and Shokhan - and even met one of the world’s only female eagle hunters.
Aishol Pan began learning to hunt with her eagle at 13-years-old and at the same age won the annual Eagle Hunters festival , which draws hunters from all over Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Pakistan - with a record call time of seven seconds with her eagle.
Despite the lengthy commitment to training and the harsh lifestyle, eagle hunters do not dedicate the entire year to training and hunting with the golden eagles.
Santos said: “This is not a year-long activity, they only do it for two or three months per year. I was expecting them to enjoy the hunting and do it for the pleasure of killing, but actually they do it because it’s a way of getting food.
“All three families were not excited about the eagle hunting season starting because they respect the rhythm of nature and have no pleasure in hunting prey that is still young. When the time comes they hunt and they finish when the season does.
“As soon as the eagle reaches 10-years-old - half of their life expectancy - they are returned to nature to breed again and have a normal life with another eagle.”
Only female eagles are used for hunting as they tend to be bigger, stronger, more agile and far more focussed while hunting down their prey.
Recalling the experience, Joel said: “It’s like time travelling to a period where we were all intone with nature, keeping the balance, upholding the father-to-son knowledge sharing.
“That still exists, but it’s rare - thus it is precious to see.”