In search of the eagle huntresses of western Mongolia

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By Webdesk

Altai, Mongolia – Sitting motionless on a wooden perch at the side of a small family cabin high in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia is a golden eagle.

The magnificent bird of prey is attached to a long rope, her delicate head and amber eyes covered by a black leather cap; only her beak is exposed. The eagle was caught in the wild and trained to hunt – but not by the young woman rushing past who barely acknowledges it as she makes her way to the cow pen.

Twenty-three-year-old Semser Bahitnur’s jet-black hair is rolled into a messy bun. It’s almost five o’clock in the evening, time to milk the cows. The young mother squats on a low stool and begins to move her fingers quickly. Her bright pink cheeks are burned raw from daily outdoor chores.

Semser comes from a nomadic Kazakh family of well-known eagle-hunting men. Her grandfather Ajken Tabysbek and father Shokhan have won many national tournaments over the decades. Photographs and medals adorn the inside walls of their cabin, and their names have captured the attention of international photographers and paying tourists who come to Altai to get a glimpse of Mongolia’s eagle-hunting culture.

Inside the family cabin, Semser moves tirelessly, preparing fresh milk for the family. When asked about women going hunting with eagles, she tells Al Jazeera, “Yes, women can hunt if there is time and there are horses.”

But her photograph is not among those on the family’s hunting wall of fame.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv
A file photo of huntress Aisholpan Nurgaiv, taken in Dubai on December 10, 2016 [File: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF]

In 2013, Kazakh women in Mongolia captured global attention when a young eagle huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, became the subject of a viral photograph taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky. He returned to the country in 2014 with British director Otto Bell, who made a documentary about the teenager.

The storyline focused on her being an outlier in Kazakh culture in what Bell described as an “isolated” community with “a certain kind of ignorance about what woman can do”. These remarks were made during a press interview on CBS’s Mountain Morning Show in January 2016, where he also said she was the “first woman to eagle hunt in the 2,000-year-old male-dominated history”.

But Kazakhs and historians say this is not true.

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