Ak Zholtoi, the six year old eagle queen of Kyrgyzstan

The story of a man, a bird and a blogger in rural Central Asia

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Hello all! I have someone special I’d like you to meet. Let me introduce you to Ak Zholtoi. She’s six years old and is from Bokonbaevo, Kyrgyzstan.  

Don’t let her young age fool you, for a more BAMF never existed, and she’s not to be trifled with. Her hobbies include chasing foxes, chowing down on raw chicken, cuddles and soaring with the wind beneath her wings (don’t we all). Dislikes include being held by bloggers who don’t know what they are doing.

Did I mention she is a golden eagle? In fact, she’s the queen of the eagles. Prepare to bend the knee, guys.

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

Ak Zholtoi and her owner, Azamat, are the champion eagle hunters at the World Nomad Games. No big deal right? And Azamat is only eighteen years old to boot. 

Together, they are out to follow in the footsteps of Ghengis Khan, or the more local but no less legendary Manas, to conquer Central Asia. Whilst this was not my first foray into spending time with eagle hunters, it was by far the most educational and intimate.

I’d like to think Ak Zholtoi and I met as colleagues but left as life-long friends. That is, if she can forgive me for dropping her. 

Yes, I dropped Kyrgyzstan’s champion eagle. Like on the ground. Guys, I dropped Kyrgyzstan’s champion eagle on the fucking ground. OMG!

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

eagle hunting
Zombie bird! Jokes, I just managed to get a shot of her blinking

If you all remember way back when around 2014 I spent a month riding horses with the traditional Kazakh eagle hunters in western Mongolia, an experience which changed my life. There I witnessed the traditional nomads in action, with their birds of prey perched on their arm, waiting to be let loose to reap destruction, ruination and despair amongst the local fox and hare community.

It was powerful, moving, and pretty freaking impressive. I’ll also add that there are only a few hundred people in the entire world that have maintained this practice.

I was hooked. Being a bird nerd is in my genes. My mom used to volunteer with rehabilitating falcons and hawks, and thanks to her in addition to living in New Zealand, the original land of birds, I’ve come to love and admire our feathered friends.

Speaking of, did you know that New Zealand used to be home to the biggest eagle in the world? They had a ten foot wingspan, and there are even Māori stories of how they used to hunt people before going extinct. Shivers

But I digress.

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

Their cousin, the mighty golden eagle, now rules the northern hemisphere these days, especially in Central Asia.

On my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan I was lucky enough to spend time with the best of the best champion eagle hunters, based on the South Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul and observe their badassery in action.

In Kyrgyz there is a specific word for those who hunt with eagles, and they are known as bürkütchü.

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

Traditional Kyrgyz hunting is known as Salbuurun and it’s an art involving the local communities coming together to go on long hunts on horseback (of course) with bows and arrows, eagles and even special hunting Taigan dogs as the drums beat in the background. They’d disappear for weeks in winter bringing back food and furs for their families, the knowledge of which has been passed down over the centuries.

At the heart of it, Salbuurun is completely Kyrgyz, with nothing else like it in the world, and it is totally unique, combining the best archers, eagles, horses and dogs all together on horseback.

Under the Soviets, Salbuurun almost disappeared as nomadic culture and practices were discouraged in Kyrgyzstan, but luckily younger generations have begun to take pride and interest in their traditional heritage and it’s making a comeback.

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

After spending the day with Ak Zholtoi and Azamat, I think what impressed me the most was their bond which transcended their differences. It seemed almost human how they interacted. 

He’s had her since she was a baby. Traditionally, the bürkütchü would climb high cliffs and steal the eagle chicks from the nest, though nowadays nets and purchases are more the norm. I feel conflicted about that, since I am definitely far entrenched in the whole “hands off leave the poor animals alone” camp yet I believe wholeheartedly in keeping tradition alive. Obviously stealing baby animals from their mothers is, um, not ideal, but so is an invading country intentionally trying to stamp out thousands of years of culture too. I think it’s really great that Kyrgyz traditional culture is being revived, and with all the eagle hunters I’ve seen, I was nothing short of impressed and amazed at how they work together.

Hunting with these birds has and still sustains people in this part of the world, and since I buy my meat gladwrapped at supermarkets, perhaps it’s not my place to have an opinion. I do, however, have an opinion on bride-napping, Kyrgyzstan, that is un-fucking-acceptable and needs to stop immediately.

Liz, stop talking. Like, right now.

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

Anywho, the eagles can live to be up to 40 years old, but they’ll spend less than half their lifetime with their owner, who will release them back into the wild. An eagle hunter in Kyrgyzstan will only have two eagles in his lifetime, so the bonds built between bird and master are incredibly tight knit and strong. In many ways they are almost like one person together.

For my part, I feel very privileged to witness something very rare and special in Kyrgyzstan, and I hope that this tradition can stay alive for future generations.

If you’re looking to learn more about eagles in Kyrgyzstan and join in to see them in action, and maybe even meet Ak Zholtoi yourself, email [email protected] and they’ll help you organize a visit.

Are you interested in eagle hunting and learning about traditional nomadic culture too? Do you dream of seeing these guys in action one day? Are you a bird nerd at heart too? Spill!

eagle hunting

eagle hunting

Many thanks to USAID for hosting me in Kyrgyzstan, like always I’m keeping it real, all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me.

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33 Comments on “Ak Zholtoi, the six year old eagle queen of Kyrgyzstan

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  1. Ever since reading about the nomadic tribes of Mongolia who hunt with eagles, I’ve found eagle hunters and their relationships to the birds absolutely fascinating. What a gift to be able to spend time with them a couple of years ago! That must have been an experience like no other.

    This eagle is such a beauty! The conflict surrounding capturing the eagles is a difficult one. I don’t necessarily believe in keeping tradition for tradition’s sake – there are plenty of cruel, barbaric and inhumane practices that some deem ‘traditional’ as justification for them. But, it is positive to see previously stamped out culture being revived… . I’m on the fence here – I think the bond between the two is beautiful, but do the ends justify the means? I’m not sure! One thing is sure though, your photos are incredible and breathtaking! What a place x

  2. Very, very cool! Concur that I’m conflicted on how they get the birds. I get it, but my heart hurts for the babies taken from a nest and a mother eagle who loses her baby. And the bride-napping. We watched a whole thing about before I deployed because we knew we’d be working in Central Asian countries and I was like, NOPE, NOPE, NOPE, not okay at all and then it’s all, well, the girls just fight because they feel like they have to, but they’re really excited, which, NOPE.

    1. Basically you twist your wrist holding here and move your arm up and down and she’ll put her wings out to balance, but she’s so heavy, so I was doing that and fully dropped her

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