Palani Mohan – Freelance photographer
This is a story of how I came to be on the edge of the world, frozen, and on the trail of men who hunt with eagles. I spent four years photographing the last remaining men who live around the Altai Mountains in far northwest Mongolia, who hunt the red fox using the golden eagles. This extraordinary way of life which has lasted for centuries is vanishing in front of our eyes. And I’d like to tell you about it.
But before I do that, I’d like to take you all back a few decades. I was offered a photographic cadetship with The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. In that old newspaper office, there was a room where they kept all their international newspapers, where I used to spend quite a bit of time. It was in one of those newspapers, a British broadsheet, I think, that I first saw an image of a man standing on top of a snow-covered mountain, holding a golden eagle in his arms. It was a beautiful image, and it quite literally took my breath away. It was in black and white, and it had a caption which read that it was shot in Mongolia. A bit like the image you can see on your screen.
I have to tell you, growing up as a teenager in Sydney, there are many things that I have little recollection about. But that image was cemented in my mind. Where on Earth was Mongolia? And how can men tame eagles? I was desperate to go and find out for myself. But for 25 years I did nothing about it. I had the great privilege to travel to many parts of the world and photograph some truly amazing things, but that man, and that mountain, and that eagle … they had to wait.
But strange things happened in life. In 2012, when I was living back in Hong Kong with my family, one day I received an email, a junk email from Mongolian Airlines, saying that they had just started daily flights between Hong Kong and Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. That was my cue. I had waited long enough.
So, I make a bunch of phone calls, I buy a ticket, of course. I get together some warm clothes because I’m thinking it might be a bit chilly, and with very little planning, I take off. Within 72 hours, I’m on a plane heading north. It was early December. Ulaanbaatar, the land of Genghis Khan, is the coldest and the most polluted capital in the world during the winter months. Polluted, because of all the cheap and nasty coal that people use to keep warm. That’s the reason.
So when I landed, it was below minus 40 degrees. I’m not too sure if any of you out there have been in minus 40 degrees, but I can tell you, it was my first time. And I didn’t like it whatsoever. Also, importantly, I have to tell you that I was born in Madras, in South India. I’m not built for the cold whatsoever. So, I had a line prepared, but it’s gone now. So this is what a Tamil man- me – looks like in minus 40 degrees. It’s not a pretty picture. It takes me a good week to get myself from Ulaanbaatar to the Altai Mountains in the very far northwest of Mongolia.
If you look at the map, and the points where Mongolia, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan meet, that’s where I was heading – the middle of nowhere. The Altai Mountains are rugged, remote, and they are spectacularly beautiful. It’s a brutally cold and windy place where only the toughest survive. Many of the men that I was there to photograph are dying, and each year some of them perish. They perish from the cold, and they perish of old age. And along with them, perishes a unique way of life. That was a reason why I was there: to document the last remaining 50 to 60 men of the Altais who hunt with their golden eagles before they are gone.
I’d like to show you some images of some of these men and their families that I first met when I got there. What struck me immediately when I started photographing them was how incredibly relaxed and comfortable they were in front of a camera. The textures on the carpets, the hands, the clothing that they wore, the smokiness in their ‘ger,’ all seemed to me from another time. And using black and white as a medium was a great accompaniment to what I was witnessing through the viewfinder.
The eagles were very curious to the noise my shutter made when I pressed the button. They would turn around and look directly down the barrel of the lens with their eyes open, with their head up. And that was, I guess, that was a great gift from them to me.
The golden eagle – let me tell you something about these amazing birds. In that part of the world, there are no tall trees so the eagles build their nests high up in the rock faces. This is where the men go to find a young bird. So they are looking for an eaglet which is about three to four months old. Old enough so it’s seen and tasted a fresh kill, but not too old that it can’t learn to live with humans. Only the female birds are taken, because they’re bigger and a lot more aggressive than the males. So, the hunters… They’re a lot more aggressive, yeah.
There’s a whole TED talk right there which I’m not … All right. So the men climb up to the rock faces, they snatch the eaglets, and they bring it home. There, they start hand-feeding it fresh meat three to four times a day, and this goes on for many, many years. Something truly remarkable starts to happen here. This is when the bond between man and bird starts to take hold, and this is when, as one of the hunters told me, they fall in love with one another.
A golden eagle can live up to 30 years, but interestingly, after keeping them for about 15 years, the men release them back into the wild. They give the birds back to nature. And by doing that, they’re giving them a chance to have a family of their own. This is a very important part of the whole tradition.
So when the time comes, during the summer months, the men ride off with their eagle a long way from home. They feed the bird as much fresh meat as it can possibly eat, and in the cover of night, they say their final goodbyes, and they let them go. And they rush back home. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly moving time for them. Many of these men cry as they arrive back home. It’s like giving up one of your family members. I’ve heard truly extraordinary stories about how these birds, weeks and months later, somehow find the men, and they return back to them. And with a heavy heart, they have to do the whole thing all over again.
This is a portrait of Orazhkan and his beautiful great-granddaughter, Naskul. Orazhkan is the oldest, the wisest, and the greatest of all the eagle hunters in the land – a living legend of sorts. He’s 94 years old. He’s tall, he’s handsome with broad shoulders, and he has hands like sandpaper. He’s gone blind in one eye, and his once keen hearing is all but faded. He hardly ate anything anymore, and he missed his wife dearly who passed away over a decade ago. So every time I would return back to Mongolia, I always make a point of finding Orazhkan and spending as much time as I could with him. He thought I was somewhat eccentric. “Why do you leave your family year after year, and return to the cold to ask me more of the same questions? Eat more meat and try to keep warm.” He almost fell off his stool when he found out that I was a vegetarian.