On Horseback Among the many Eagle Hunters and Herders of the Mongolian Altai

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9-year-old Dastan, the son of a Kazakh eagle hunter, rode his pony alongside mine, cantering effortlessly with out a saddle and laughing at my makes an attempt to point out my fluffy pony some affection — a gesture that the animal wasn’t accustomed to.

Surrounding us was the huge, desolate panorama of the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. From the grassy valley the place horses grazed alongside the river, the rocky, gold-tinted terrain stretched endlessly towards the jagged ridges within the distance, with a dusting of snow heralding the arrival of winter.

On horseback with Dastan, I used to be reminded in some methods of my childhood in Wales, the place I spent my days driving my pony by means of the countryside, having fun with the quiet pure great thing about my environment, all the time with a sizzling cup of tea ready for me on the finish of a protracted day.

In October 2019, after virtually three years dwelling and dealing in northern Iraq, the place I lined the nation’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State, I started engaged on a private images venture that drew on my background and affinity with horses. My aim was to discover the relationships between animals — horses, specifically — and the individuals whose livelihoods depend upon them.

To begin, I flew to western Mongolia to satisfy and {photograph} the enduring Kazakh hunters, horsemen and animal herders.

With the assistance of an area information and translator, I traveled from the city of Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii province, to go to a few of the seminomadic herding households who proceed to dwell off the land in a particularly harsh atmosphere.

Encompassing the westernmost space of Mongolia, Bayan-Olgii is the nation’s solely Muslim and Kazakh-majority province, or aimag.

Deep within the Altai Mountains, the place Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet, Kazakh individuals have for hundreds of years developed and nurtured a particular bond with golden eagles, coaching the birds to hunt foxes and different small animals.

Alankush, an eagle hunter, animal herder and father of two, stated that he takes care of his eagle “as if she have been a child.”

The traditional customized of searching with eagles on horseback is historically handed down from father to son at a younger age and is taken into account an incredible supply of delight.

“All Kazakhs love to coach eagles,” stated Alankush. “Now we preserve eagles principally as a result of it’s a standard sport.”

Serik Gingsbek, who was 26 once I met him, is a well known and achieved eagle hunter, sportsman and horse coach. He talked at size with me about his particular relationship along with his eagle.

“If my eagle feels dangerous, I really feel dangerous,” he stated. “If she’s joyful, I’m joyful. After we go to the mountains, we share every part collectively.”

In current generations, many Kazakh households have migrated from the countryside to city areas, partly due to the difficulties in accessing well being care, schooling, social companies and employment alternatives. Amongst those that have stayed, the traditional apply of eagle searching has offered a further supply of revenue from the guests who pay to see the famed birds in motion.

Coaching and caring for golden eagles is only one facet of an animal herder’s life; others embrace coaching younger horses, tending sheep, milking yaks and butchering meat.

The every day calls for of a standard herding household’s life can go away little time for added schooling or the pursuit of private ambitions away from dwelling.

In response to their bodily demanding life, dad and mom who work as herders typically ship their youngsters to boarding faculty in cities and cities, generally removed from dwelling, within the hope that their youngsters will safe a extra comfy future.

Regardless of having lived his whole life within the mountains, Alankush stated he hopes for a unique path for his youngsters. “I don’t have an schooling, and I’m not younger,” he instructed me. “If I have been younger, perhaps I’d go to Olgii to work — however for me it’s higher to remain within the countryside.”

“Countryside life may be very arduous, particularly for youngsters,” he stated. “That’s why I ship my youngsters to high school. In the event that they end college, I hope they’ll discover jobs within the metropolis.”

Paradoxically, such parental ambitions might outcome within the eventual disappearance of a tradition and lifestyle that has survived for generations.

Outwardly, documenting the normal methods of life in western Mongolia stands in stark distinction to my time spent photographing scenes of battle and struggling in Iraq. However the two topics share a standard theme: the human battle not simply to outlive, however to construct a greater future for oneself and one’s household.

That common battle may be present in conditions of battle, occupation and compelled emigration, simply as it may be discovered within the circumstances of a nomadic individuals subsisting on what many would take into account meager sources.

And regardless of the variations within the environment and the scope of the challenges confronted by the individuals I met, I felt a connection — and shared a standard language — with the Kazakh horsemen, by means of our mutual affinity with horses.

Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on battle, humanitarian and environmental crises and social points. You possibly can observe her work on Instagram and Twitter.

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