Wednesday, April 23, 2014

This 13-Year-Old Mongolian Girl Hunts With Golden Eagles

Photographer Asher Svidensky captured this stunning shot of Ashol-Pan during a 40-day trip to Mongolia late last year. Svidensky, who lives in Israel, told The Huffington Post over Skype Thursday that he had traveled to Mongolia to document the lives of Kazakh eagle hunters who live in the Altai mountain range. These hunters, reports the BBC, are the only people in the world who hunt with the magnificent golden eagle. According to Svidensky, the Kazakh falconers use eagles to hunt animals for fur and to protect their livestock and property from predators. 
Ashol-Pan on a mountain cliff edge with her eagle
Svidensky, 24, said he had started out his trip photographing established eagle hunters in the region, but his plan soon took an unexpected turn after he met a 13-year-old boy who was training to be a falconer. He writes on his website that he decided to document the "future generation" of eagle hunters -- the children who "hold the tradition's future in their bare hands." "This is an interesting turning point in history and I wanted to photograph that," he told HuffPost. "[These kids will determine] what eagle hunting will be in the 21st century and the 22nd."
Svidensky ended up photographing four young boys and one inspiring young woman: Ashol-Pan, the daughter of a celebrated hunter. "It was amazing to see her with the eagle," Svidensky told the HuffPost of watching Ashol-Pan at work. "I actually felt she was a lot more comfortable with the eagle [than some of the other trainees]. She was a lot more at ease with it. It takes a lot of courage and power to hunt the way she does. It's a big scary bird, you know. This is not a Disney character. This is a killer."
According to the BBC, Ashol-Pan may be the country's only apprentice eagle huntress. Eagle hunting is a Kazakh tradition that dates back some 2,000 years, National Geographic notes, and Svidensky said he has heard of no other female falconer in the country. He's excited, he said, to see if Ashol-Pan becomes what could be Mongolia's first full-fledged eagle huntress.
Svidensky's photographs of Ashol-Pan and the other children have gone viral this month after being shared online by the BBC and other news outlets. "I've received hundreds of emails. I'm completely shocked," said Svidensky of the reception his photos have received.
By William Kremer BBC World Service: A photographer who snapped what could be the world's only girl hunting with a golden eagle says watching her work was an amazing sight. Most children, Asher Svidensky says, are a little intimidated by golden eagles. Kazakh boys in western Mongolia start learning how to use the huge birds to hunt for foxes and hares at the age of 13, when the eagles sit heavily on their undeveloped arms. Svidensky, a photographer and travel writer, shot five boys learning the skill - and he also photographed Ashol-Pan. "To see her with the eagle was amazing," he recalls. She was a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more powerful with it and a lot more at ease with it." The Kazakhs of the Altai mountain range in western Mongolia are the only people that hunt with golden eagles, and today there are around 400 practising falconers. Ashol-Pan, the daughter of a particularly celebrated hunter, may well be the country's only apprentice huntress.
They hunt in winter, when the temperatures can drop to -40C (-40F). A hunt begins with days of trekking on horseback through snow to a mountain or ridge giving an excellent view of prey for miles around. Hunters generally work in teams. After a fox is spotted, riders charge towards it to flush it into the open, and an eagle is released. If the eagle fails to make a kill, another is released. The skill of hunting with eagles, Svidensky says, lies in harnessing an unpredictable force of nature. "You don't really control the eagle. You can try and make her hunt an animal - and then it's a matter of nature. What will the eagle do? Will she make it? How will you get her back afterwards?"

The eagles are not bred in captivity, but taken from nests at a young age. Female eaglets are chosen since they grow to a larger size - a large adult might be as heavy as seven kilos, with a wingspan of over 230cm. After years of service, on a spring morning, a hunter releases his mature eagle a final time, leaving a butchered sheep on the mountain as a farewell present. "That's how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations", Svidensky says. He describes Ashol-Pan as a smiling, sweet and shy girl. His photographs of her engaging in what has been a male activity for around 2,000 years say something about Mongolia in the 21st Century.

"The generation that will decide what will happen with every tradition that Mongolia contains is this generation," says Svidensky, who showed Ashol-Pan's family the photographs on his laptop. "Everything there is going to change and is going to be redefined - and the possibilities are amazing."

Ashol-Pan on a mountain cliff edge with her eagle