The True Story of a Tribe that Still Hunts with Eagles to Survive

Credit: Photographs Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

For thousands of years, a Kazakh tribe has trained Golden Eagles in the region’s barren alpine mountains to swoop down and capture foxes for food and furs. Hundreds of miles from the nearest city, tribal families live without electricity or running water, and they rely on the eagles for survival. Goat and cattle herders, they move three times a year, following the animals and the pastures, selling meat and dairy along the way.

“They live with the rhythm of the day,” says Otto Bell, whose new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, came out of the several weeks he spent camped out with the family. “They will have an evening meal, and are up with the dawn. Their only modern technology is a solar panel. They have a profoundly deep respect for nature and a really powerful understanding of the rhythms of the wildlife.”

This deep understanding extends to the local Golden Eagle population. According to tradition, when a young boy is 13, his father begins to train him to hunt with eagles. The tribe captures young female eagles who are not yet old enough to fly, raise them, and after seven years return them to the wild to breed.

Although eagle hunting has always been a man’s job, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old girl, is intent on overturning 2000 years of male tradition. Her father and grandfather were both trained in the tradition and support her goal, teaching her diligently. Despite the disapproval of elders, her plan is to compete in the region’s annual Eagle Hunting Festival, where participants are graded on their personal style and their bird’s hunting skills — and is increasingly attracting Westerners.

Bell discovered the tradition through the work of Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky, whose pictures of Aisholpan have been published around the world. Fascinated, Bell flew to Mongolia and met with Aisholpan’s family.

“I was tentative about the idea of making a film, but they were not,” Bell remembers. Right when he arrived, “they said, ‘We are going to steal a baby eagle from the mountainside this afternoon. Would you like to film that?’ ”

Armed only with a small team of three, the filmmakers had to get creative. They sent a drone up to capture the expansive Mongolian landscape, from grassy steppes to icy barren wilderness. Bell actually attached a go-pro to one of the eagles, using a dog harness, which allowed him to capture the Eagle Hunting Festival where Aisholpan successfully competed.

She has since received a scholarship to one of the best schools in Mongolia, and the filmmakers have set up a fund for her education — she wants to be a surgeon.

“She is pretty determined,” Bell says.

In the meantime, she is inspiring a new trend of female eagle hunters. “There were three more eagle huntresses at the festival this year,” Bell says. “It is happening.”