A brave member of a nomadic tribe in Mongolia competed in an eagle hunting competition, bringing visibility to a history of female hunters.

The Eurasian steppes of Mongolia are a cold and forbidding place. Rocky crags loom over snow-laden crevasses deep enough to swallow a horse, and temperatures can drop to -60 degrees Celsius. But the sky overhead is a crystal blue bowl, its sun-streaked expanse ruled by the most majestic of birds: the golden eagle.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv grew up in a family of Kazakh minority nomads, the largest ethnic minority in Mongolia, who seasonally travel the Altai Mountains to find the best grazing land for their livestock. The semi-nomadic community of herders make their homes in round, portable gers—skin tents easily moved to greener pastures.

Aisholpan’s father, Rys (Agalai) Nurgaiv, supplemented the family’s provisions in a time-honored way among their people. He was a bürkitshi, an eagle hunter, and Aisholpan wanted to be just like him. Trained since childhood, the men in Aisholpan’s family were successful hunters; her father, uncle, and older brother—who was training to be his father’s apprentice when he was drafted into the army—would ready their horses with a special wooden saddle needed to sustain the weight of the rider and a full grown female golden eagle, which can weigh up to 15 pounds. Then, they would ride out into the mountains highest peaks to hunt foxes, rabbits, and even the occasional wolf.

Young Aisholpan would scan the horizon every night waiting for their return. The catch they brought would provide meat for the cooking pot and fur for warm clothing, but it was the story of the hunt itself Aisholpan was most looking forward to hearing.

Kazakh eagle hunters in Olgii, Mongolia. Photo by Altaihunters/Wiki.

The eagles would be called from their lofty perches to settle on to the arms of their hunter and then scan the steppes for prey. The majestic birds set off again, wings outstretched, when an unlucky fox or hare was spotted. Like an arrow shot from a bow, the eagle would dive and clutch the prey in razor-like talons and return the kill to the hunter waiting on his horse.

This dance of death took years to learn and a special bond was created between hunter and eagle. Aisholpan longed to try it out for herself. When her older brother left home to join the army, she finally had her chance and asked her father if she could learn the ways of the eagle.

Agalaihas seen how Aisholpan was always stroking his eagle’s feathers and speaking softly to it, as though they shared a language. He knew such a connection made a successful eagle hunter. He always said that eagle hunting was a calling, not a choice, and he saw that Aisholpan might have been called.

Aisholpan was brave and strong, so he decided to begin training her. They rode off into the mountains, carrying his eagle.

Aisholpan’s father first taught her to cover the eagles head with a hood and then remove it. The practice was an exercise in the ancient method of hunting, teaching Aisholpan to make calls to the eagle to signal prey is nearby.

When Aisholpan mastered those skills, her father tied a leather glove onto her hand and placed a hunk of mutton in her palm. After, Agalai rode to a nearby cliff with the eagle.

Aisholpan held the meat aloft and in the loudest voice she could muster, called “Huukaa! Huukaa!” and was amazed when the eagle swooped down onto her arm, talons clawing at the protective glove as it tore into its meaty reward. 

Aisholpan Nurgaiv.

Though Aisholpan attended boarding school in a nearby town during the week, on the weekends, she spent all of her time training with the eagle. Eventually, her father took Aisholpan to the mountains to catch her own eaglet to train.

Traditional Kazakh eagle hunters always caught their eagles in the wild, instead of buying them at market to help form a bond, her father said. The bird would become a part of the family.

When they reached the peak, Aisholpan gulped down her fear, tightened the rope her father had tied around her waist and nodded. Agalai lowered her slowly until she swung gently above the squawking eaglets in the nest. Aisholpan threw a blanket over the head of the nearest eaglet. 

Aisholpan named her eagle Akkanat, meaning white wings.

Aisholpan fed Akkanat choice morsels and stroked her fine feathers.Soon, looking into Akkanat’s obsidian eyes, Aisholpan knew she and the bird were of one spirit. Aisholpan would do anything for Akkanat and she believed Akkanat returned her devotion.

Aisholpan decided to test their bond by competing in an eagle hunting contest, training for weeks to become the first girl to enter. When it was finally time, she and her father rode with their eagles for a full day to reach the capital of Bayan-Ölgii and when they arrived, Aisholpan saw her competition: 70 grown men, some of whom were veteran hunters more than thrice her age. But Aisholpan had faith in Akkanat and herself.

The other hunters and their eagles were skilled and a few made it known they didn’t believe a mere girl should even compete. But, when it was her turn, Aisholpan braced her arm and called out “Huukaa! Huukaa!” Akkanat landed on Aisholpan’s arm in only five seconds—a new record!

After the competition, Aisholpan and Akkanat trained in the wild to catch prey, just like the hunters of old. The hauls from those hunts helped clothe and feed her family. The pair also continued competing (and winning) hunting competitions, inspiring other girls to learn eagle hunting—including Aisholpan’s younger sister, who took her place as the family’s eagle hunting apprentice.

While the population of eagle hunters is small, a Stanford University historian suggested that “eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls” and that eagle huntresses were likely more common in ancient times.

“It’s an honor for me to see so many girls shelving their concerns,” Aisholpan said about those who put aside their nerves and followed her into becoming eagle hunters. “I have just given visibility to the women… and maybe helped them to get the recognition they deserve.”

Akkanat was released back into the wild to mate and raise the next brood of eaglets, and Aisholpan will pursue her dream to become a physician. She has fielded offers of scholarships from Harvard and Oxford and, when her education is complete, Aisholpan  will return to the Mongolian steppes to work among her people, never far from the sound of the eagles’ cry.