A girl and her eagle
BY ANJA FAHS
As soon as its mistress removes the protecting cap, the great eagle turns its head and looks around with its piercing eyes. It is still perched on the young girl’s arm. Suddenly, it spots its prey and in two great beats of its wings, it flies up in the air. Down in the valley, the fox has no idea of the coming danger; it is eagerly following the scent of a mouse. Intent on what is happening, Aisholpan is holding her breath. This moment will prove if all the efforts, the setbacks, the hostilities and difficulties of the last months were worth it. The eagle has to succeed, so that she, as a girl, can break the thousand-year-old barriers of a men’s tradition and assert herself as the first eagle huntress.
Aisholpan is 13 years old and lives in north-western Mongolia, in the traditional patriarchal society of her Kazakhstani origins. The men of her family have been hunting with eagles for seven generations; her father and grandfather are both masters of this almost 2,000-year-old tradition of the Altai Mountains. The eagle hunt is not only essential for the survival of her people; it is also a great honour and an important aspect of the men’s traditional role as hunters and providers of the clan – this is no business for girls. Many of the men from the village disapprove of the adventurous Aisholpan, who intrudes in their male domain by wanting to become a huntress herself. It is an affront to their way of life, in which the hunt has always been passed down only from father to son.
Training an eagle is an arduous business. Normally, fathers take their sons along on their first hunt around the age of 13 and try to find an eagle chick and steal it from the nest before it learns to fly. Only female eagles are chosen for this, because they are more aggressive on the hunt. The bird is then brought up with great care, and many months of training follow, until a tight bond forms between the eagle and its owner. They are now the perfect team for hunting foxes, hares and wolves, which provide meat and furs for the tribe. After some seven years of hunting partnership, the animal is released into the wild so that it can breed and ensure that the future of the eagle race is not endangered.
Aisholpan knows each phase of the training, since she always accompanied her grandfather and her father when they were training their eagles. She has a great dream: she wants to find and train her own eagle and with it, to win the competition of the great annual Eagle Hunting Festival. Aisholpan’s father and grandfather are worried, since they can feel the disapproval of the other male members of the clan. “I think it is every woman’s right to decide for herself what she wants to be,” says Almagul, her mother. Her father Nurgaiv reassures his daughter: “You are just as courageous and valiant as any man.” He stands by her unconditionally, and together, they catch a fledgling. Thanks to regular feeding, the brave little girl soon earns the trust of the bird. It learns to sit on her arm, to fly and come back on command.
Aisholpan and her eagle soon become inseparable. The Mongolian Eagle Hunting Festival is getting closer. That is where the best hunters show how skilful they are with their feathered hunting companions. Women are mostly only admitted here to cook or, at best, for a possible interesting marriage match. Aisholpan draws distrustful stares. But her passion, her courage and her tenacity finally bear fruit. In 2014, at barely 13 years of age, Aisholpan is the first girl to win the Eagle Hunting Festival’s competition, which attracts ever more Westerners.
Thus it is that the Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky catches Aisholpan’s victory on camera. Through his photos, the brave girl and her great dream become famous on the internet and far across the borders of Mongolia. New-York film-director Otto Bell was immediately fascinated by the extraordinary tale of Aisholpan and secured the rights to her story. Bell liquidated all his savings and flew to Mongolia to live with the family. Slowly, he gained Aisholpan’s trust. Under very hard conditions, he succeeded in shooting an incredible documentary film on the adventures of a brave 13-year-old girl in Kazakhstan who defies the ancient traditions of a male-dominated society to become the first eagle huntress.
‘The Eagle Huntress’ was produced by Sony Pictures Classic and has just been released in the USA. Its premier in Germany is still to be announced.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2017. Picture credit © Photo by Asher Svidensky, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics