If you’re a vegan, look away now. If you love fluffy bunnies, look away now. If you don’t like blood and guts, look away now.
Because out on the steppes, it’s survival of the fittest. You hunt and eat, or you die.
Out there, eagles eat well, and live long. And if you’re an Eagle Man, you get to share.
With my rusty German, I asked Meriam to organise a demonstration of eagle hunting. She ran the guesthouse in Bokonbaev, a nondescript little place on the south side of Lake Issyk-kol. Still tired from our big trek in the Karakol Alps, we stopped in here overnight with the sole purpose of seeing the eagle hunting (but still managed to buy a big shyrdak carpet which I lugged around the country for the next two weeks).
Before long, a dusty old VW Golf pulled up outside, and a short fellow in traditional clothes introduced himself. His name was Talgar.
Yon jumped in the back and I took the front seat. Half a rabbit lay on the floor between my feet, foreshadowing what was to come. But first we had to drive out of town, I assumed to the place where his eagle would be waiting, along with some other visitors. I pictured a cage or coop, and maybe a gaggle of Europeans.
On the way, we made small talk. He liked his old Golf. “Golf Two, good. New Golf, not good”. He patted the steering wheel. Kyrgyzstan is where German cars go to die – we rode in clapped out old VWs, Audis, even BMWs. Pimped out Benzes dodge decrepit Opels on the dusty roads. When a German sells his car, it goes to Poland or Hungary. When the Pole or Hungarian upgrades, it moves to Romania. Then, perhaps, to the Ukraine or Turkey. Some day, when the first owner can’t even remember having had it, that car rolls into a small Kyrgyz town, as a family upgrades from a Lada or Zhiguli or a donkey. Either that, or it’s stolen in Hamburg and comes direct. I don’t know how Talgar’s Golf came to him, but he loved it. Between bracing for impact as the car avoided potholes, we carried on a conversation over the pounding noise.
Talgar had been all over the world with his eagle hunting. Just recently, he’d attended the world falconry convention in London. What impressed him most was the roads. “In Kyrgyzstan, take bus, no sleep”. He mimed the bouncing and bustling that characterised every journey in this country. “In England UK, take bus, I sleep all the way!”. As he wrestled the Golf over some more potholes, he mimed that first smooth sleep of the man who’d never dreamed of passing out on a bus. He had a quiet, friendly way about him. We liked him already (and I learned a lot about the fuel consumption of a Golf – 5 l/100km, he reckoned. The world around, men can talk about cars – it transcends nationality, language and class).
We arrived in an empty valley, desert-like, with an old building far off to the north. No people, and no eagle.
As we stood outside the car, he put on his kalpak hat and started telling us about eagle hunting. “Where’s your eagle?” Yon asked after a moment. “Oh, in the car”. He opened the hatchback – just behind where Yon had been sitting the last half hour. And pulled out an eagle – a really big eagle with a really sharp beak.
Even before the eagle spread her wings could we already appreciate her size. We spent the next few minutes getting to know her.
The Apex Predator
Eagles are known as “apex predators” – predators at the top of their food chain. Evolution has refined them so effectively that nothing challenges their dominance over their environment (except humans, of course). An eagle cruises the sky with impunity and strikes its prey at will.
“Tumara can see five kilometers”, said Talgar quietly. “A rabbit moves, a fox runs, Tumara sees”. Beneath that hood must be some exceptional eyes.
And then Talgar produced a rabbit. The demonstration suddenly got real.
Death from Above
A fluffy white bunny, the kind you had when you were a kid. The kind they sell outside subway stations in Beijing, laid on a sheet and bundled up in a flash if the cops are nearby. Small, white, fluffy and cute. And with about five minutes to live.
As Yon looked at the little bunny, Talgar told us where to stand. He would run up the hill, and then remove Tumara’s hood. She would scan the valley floor for a moment, then at his command, she would execute the hunt.
Gently but without ceremony, Talgar set the rabbit on the ground, ran over to where Tumara was waiting, and set off up the hill. We stood over to the side, holding our breath. It took Talgar a few minutes to run uphill, and then we could hardly see him.
“Are you ready?” he yelled. There was not a breath of wind. Apart from his call, all was silent. The bunny didn’t make a sound. It just loped around, snuffling here, munching there.
We signalled we were ready. Silence. He must be removing the hood. A moment later, Talgar let out a cry. Tumara leapt off his arm with one monstrous beat of her wings.
According to their wikipedia entry, Golden Eagles – Tumara’s species – have at least seven distinct hunting techniques. They’re smart birds, and extensive studies have shown they can flexibly switch between techniques. On this day, Tumara swooped down the hillside at low altitude, maybe five meters off the ground. It was a perfect demonstration of the “contour flight with short glide attack”. Flying low – nap of the earth – so she couldn’t be seen against the sky, Tumara was difficult enough to track for us, who knew she was coming. The rabbit was oblivious.
In the glide attack, “just prior to impact, the wings are opened, the tail fanned and feet thrust forward to grab the prey, creating a booming sound, causing by the wings whipping against the wind, in the instant before the strike that sounds like a clap of thunder”.
We watched, transfixed. Tumara swept through the air, her head fixed in position even as she banked in a lazy right turn, only her wedge tail moving sharply to adjust her course to come around behind her prey. The bunny eventually saw her and started to run, but Tumara opened her wings and banked heavily to the right, following the rabbit’s desperate effort to escape.
So far all we had heard was the gentle whoosh of Tumara’s nap of the earth glide. Suddenly she flared her wings and stretched out the talons. There was no “boom”, just a “thump” as she scraped along the dusty valley floor and impacted the petrified rabbit.
“The eagle …lands on prey’s back or neck, talons gripping firmly attempting to pierce vital organs or cause shock via a crushing grip to bone and cartilage. The hunting eagle typically rides its prey for several minutes with wings outstretched and flapping to maintain balance until the prey collapses, either as result of exhaustion, shock or internal injury” (wikipedia).
The Eagle Man’s Deep Love for the Eagle
Eagle hunting is an ancient art and a moving one. Long gone in most of the world, certainly the west and China, his connection with Tumara was something from an earlier age. Once upon a time, humans (realistically speaking, men) could have a special bond with certain animals – a relationship of equals built up over many years and based on a real respect and care for the creature. Talgar had this bond with Tumara. Yes, he’d stolen her from her nest as a fledgling, but he had also devoted years of effort into training her to hunt with him. And he had a practical compassion of a real hunter too. Despite expending rabbits on demonstrations for the likes of us, he didn’t seem to take joy in the killing and he was quick to ensure the rabbit was dead before Tumara was able to rip it apart and eat it.
It was after the demonstration that Talgar’s sensitive connection with Tumara became really clear. Without any showing off, he lovingly groomed the bird, allowing her to eat a little of the rabbit as a reward but not letting her gorge on the entire carcass.
And he helped Tumara calm down after the hunt and prepared her for the car ride back to town. Tumara took a moment or two to settle, and she wasn’t keen on giving up her prey. It was quite moving to watch the next few minutes.
As Tumara cooled off, Talgar cleaned her up and offered a stone for her to sharpen her beak. She scratched away at that for a while and Talgar walked us over to the car.
He said that Tumara would live for up to 50 years, but could only hunt with him for another ten or so. After that, he said with a hint of melancholy, he would take her back to the mountains and set her free. He would have to prepare her for this over a long period of time, ensuring that she would be able to break the bond with him and have a strong chance of surviving in the wild.
“When Tumara free, I cannot see her. Only from long way with binoculars”. He laughed. “She must fly away, go”.
Talgar went quiet. As we drove away, with Tumara again just inches from Yon in the back of his Golf, he talked about the Eagle Men. “No many much Eagle Man in Kyrgyzstan now. Maybe 30, 40. Kazakhstan maybe 100. Mongolia some more. No many Eagle Man”.
We farewelled him back at Miriam’s guesthouse, and imagined the day Talgar would say goodbye to his beloved Tumara for the last time, the day she must fly away, go.