Soaring from its master’s arm, the mighty bird wheels high overhead, then dives like an arrow from the apex of its arc. On the plain floor, the lone wolf glances back while continuing its faltering trot onwards. Without warning, the giant raptor appears out of the sky, hitting its target at high velocity while clawing and raking with razor-sharp talons. The wolf bites back at its far more lightweight attacker and for a brief instant the bird of prey appears prone – but in an instant, it lunges back at its canine quarry, fixing it in an iron grip. The wolf struggles for a few seconds. Then it lies still.
Image: Doug Smith
Predators will turn prey: Wolves baiting a bison seen from the air.
Almost everywhere they roam, wolves are alpha predators. Even the brown bear will begrudgingly share territory and kills with wolf packs; only tigers can drive them away in the wild. A wolf can weigh more than 85 lbs and grow to over 6 feet, but in the golden eagle this formidable canine finds its match. Trained to track and kill by the Mongolian Kazakhs and Kyrgyzstanis of the Central Asian plains, the golden eagle is a fearful foe for wolves and foxes. These hapless animals are hunted for their fur pelts or to control the numbers that prey on the indigenous people’s livestock.
Trained to kill: A golden eagle with an eagle hunter.
Weighing up to 15 lbs but with a wingspan reaching 7 feet, golden eagles are avian apex predators, ruling the skies over territories as large as 60 square miles. For the people of the steppes of Central Asia, training these awesome creatures is considered a high art; a tradition stretching back thousands of years whose secrets have been passed down through the generations. Training a golden eagle takes remarkable skill, toughness and patience. The bird’s brute size, bone-crushing talons and beak, and the potential danger it presents make it a formidable charge.
Tooth and claw: A golden eagle holds a wolf by its mouth.
The precious few who master the art of eagle hunting are called Berkutchi. To them, the golden eagle is a beast to be revered. Experienced Berkutchi have an eye for the characteristics that make individual eagles excellent hunters. The training itself is a complex process through which the captive eagle becomes accustomed to its owner and his horse. The bird is hand fed and later ‘broken’ by being tied to a wooden block so that it falls when attempting to fly away. These photos depict a hunting festival that occurred near the Kyrgyzstan village of Bokonbayevo in 2007.
Assailant from the air: A golden eagle pounces on a chained wolf cub.
Many might see eagle hunting as a cruel sport – an example of man’s interference with nature, since untrained eagles would rarely if ever attack wolves in the wild. Yet as a species, wolves are not yet endangered, listed as of least concern by the IUCN. And though eagle chicks have traditionally been taken from their nests to be trained as hunting birds, under new legislation this practice is meant to be strictly regulated. Conservation and animal rights issues will inevitably hover over this practice.