Archives for the month of: October, 2012

The practice of eagle hunting, also known as falconry (the term for hunting with any raptor), is a traditional form of hunting that originated among nomadic people on the Steppes of Central Asia thousands of years ago and spread to other countries and peoples around the world. In Mongolia, there are about 400 remaining ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters, who concentrate in Bayan Ulgii (area 45,700 km2), a poor aimag (prefecture) (pop. ~100,000) where an estimated 70,000 people have little or no access to schooling, medical care, electricity, water and sanitation, roads, and other public services. Nestled between the Chinese and Russian borders just east of Kazakhstan, this partly forested region of the Altai mountains is recognized nationally as critical natural habitat area and by UNESCO as a World Heritage site thus making it an area of prime importance globally for both cultural and environmental conservation (see “Golden Mountains of the Altai” and “Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai”). Here, Kazakh eagle hunters use hunting birds, namely, Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos daphanea), to catch foxes like the corsac fox as well as other creatures of prey, and turn the pelts into hats or other pieces of clothing. In the past, fox furs and other pelts were used for insulation and warmth or traded for food and other goods.

While rifles have usurped eagles for hunting game and synthetic materials and other sources of livelihood have replaced fox fur needs, the practice of eagle hunting still exists and retains many of its original customs and traditions in remote areas of western Mongolia. Eagle hunters seize a female bird from its nest as a chick in the wild or catch an adult in a net baited with fresh meat (this practice is illegal in some countries). While an adult female is more difficult to train, she is prized for her sharpness and aggressive hunting skills, which have been honed in nature over time. In addition, females are particularly desired for their size and strength. When an eagle is captured, her legs are tethered with a jess (leather ankle bands and a leash-like rope) and she is tied to a post to prevent her from flying away. In the days after she is captured, she grows weak and dizzy from refusing food given to her by the hunter. Eventually, she succumbs to hunger, abates her fear, and is compelled to take meat from the hunter’s hand. This first step is critical to breaking an eagle in and building the trust that is necessary for the training process to continue. The hunter then spends months disciplining the eagle through the use of food and a lure until one day he lets her fly free with the expectation that she will hunt and listen to his calls to return instead of flying away. During the rest of her time in captivity, she often sits idle in a corner inside the hunter’s home or is kept outside, which one Western traveler working in South Korea described as being “tied up like a dog”. After ten seasons, the hunter then lets the eagle free with the notion of ensuring sustainable breeding patterns and repeats the practice with another bird. These field skills and knowledge have been passed down from generation to generation, often from father to son through mentoring and apprenticeship, thereby building a sense of alliance and continuity. Over time, eagle hunting has become uniquely affiliated with the history and cultural identity of the Kazakh people and community in Bayan Ulgii.

In 2010, UNESCO inscribed Falconry to its Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The nomination of falconry is a multi-national submission that was supported by the Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO as well as the Association for Eagle Hunters of Mongolia, which commended eagle hunting as an ancient cultural practice of the Kazakh people that has been transmitted over generations. In addition to Mongolia, the nomination is supported by South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Czech Republic, Morocco, Qatar, Syria, Spain, and France. The most important criteria for inscription on the list is a planned program for protecting falconry in the future as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. No specific party is named as responsible for formulating such an action plan, but it should likely have been drafted by the Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO with support from the UNESCO Office of the Representative in Beijing and in conjunction with local government institutions, the community, and other stakeholders. According to UNESCO, the document should address: 1) the falconer and his needs, including medical provision for the raptor; 2) the bird of prey and her needs, including rehabilitation for injured raptors, treatment of raptors in conformation with animal welfare rules, and veterinary treatment of raptors; 3) the prey species and their needs, including legal access to huntable species traditional to falconry, ensuring all welfare issues are met, and ensuring respect for and sporting treatment of the prey while alive; and, 4) the hunting area and its needs.

Aside from eagle hunting, the list of intangible heritage includes more than 200 rich art forms related to traditional weaving, dance, song, painting, puppetry, storytelling, handicraft, and so forth, representing the unique cultural traditions of myriad peoples and ethnic groups from around the world. Falconry is the only entry on the list that involves the use of animals and, specifically, the use of wild animals, which are in essence kept as pets for the purposes of hunting (“Equitation in the French Tradition” (French-style horse-back riding) is also listed). Under the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, UNESCO promulgates safeguarding and revitalizing these diverse representations, rituals, and practices through the use of festivals and competitions, as well as recordings, publications, and craftsmanship. According to the nomination file (No. 00442) for falconry, the submitted proposal should describe how it will contribute to increasing visibility and raising awareness for the practice at the local, national, and international level. In response, a festival in the UK and a display in the UAE are used as examples to demonstrate ensuring visibility of the intangible cultural heritage and promoting an interface between falconry, the general public, and the media. UNESCO, furthermore, encourages broadening such efforts and describes them as particularly important in traditional villages or tribal communities in Mongolia and other countries.

Golden Eagle Festival – ensuring visibility of intangible cultural heritage
Beginning about 12 years ago in 2000, an annual festival and competition was held just outside Ulgii, the aimag capital, on the first weekend in October. The event takes place by a craggy mountain and draws local eagle hunters from nearby sum (counties) like Sagsai and Tolbo as well as a growing contingent of tourists and travelers from more distant countries and continents like North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. Around 30 festival entrants compete in events like Kokbar (tug of war with an animal pelt between two riders on horseback) and Tenge-ilu (picking up a small piece of material off the ground while riding on the back of a galloping horse) for cash prizes, which are handed out at the conclusion of the competition. Contests are also held testing the speed, agility, and accuracy of the hunter and his eagle. Tourists, numbering into the low hundreds, compete for photos and the event is sponsored by Nomadic Expeditions, a US-based travel company catering to an upscale global clientele. A bilingual MC introduces the event as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Mayor of Ulgii and other government officials as well as local eagle hunting proponents from the Community Association for the Preservation and Conservation of Golden Eagles and the Berkut (Eagle Hunters) Association partake in the celebration. Foreigners pay a one-time entrance fee of $30 US or 40,000 MNT to attend the two-day event. Alongside the competition, local vendors hawk handmade Kazakh wares like felt seat cushions and purses with traditional stitching, as well as decorative wall hangings, eagle hunting accessories, and other souvenirs. There are also food stands and a pit latrine. Garbage and human waste from competitors, vendors, and spectators alike are left behind after the event with measurable destruction to the fragile environment.

As a grand finale to the festival, a live wolf pup is used as bait for the eagles. In the Spring, local people snare the pup in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, a pristine nature reserve, by tracking its mother back to the den. The pup is held in chained confinement in the months leading up to the festival. At the end of the second day, the petrified pup is dragged out in front of the crowd with a metal chain tied around its neck and with rope bound tightly around its front paws and muzzle. The chain and rope are cut with a razor scalpel and the pup is flung forcefully through the air into the center of an open field. Two waiting eagles swoop down on the shocked pup from about 100 meters away. (In the wild, female birds do not hunt for the same prey specimen because they are very territorial). Onlookers circle around the wolf and eagles hurriedly while the hunter uses raw meat to distract the eagles and disengage the trapped pup from the birds’ claws. After the wolf is freed, it is grabbed and gripped tightly by the ears and the loose fur behind the muzzle before being paraded away and tied up again for unclear purposes, perhaps another event or festival or for travelers to photo or to be killed. Foreign travelers mostly turn away from the disturbing sight and are left with conflicting feelings about the festival and eagle hunting practice overall. Negative sentiments are expressed towards UNESCO for having an ancillary role in supporting the event, even if indirectly.

UNESCO intangible heritage of humanity or animal cruelty?
Today, Kazakh eagle hunting is a performance art that draws nearly 2,000 or more international tourists annually to Bayan Ulgii. The festival and culture are promoted as a pillar attraction in Mongolian guidebooks and by tourist vendors, travel agents and government institutions alike from Ulanbaatar to Ulgii. Two other similar festivals are organized and hosted by rival tour operators like Blue Wolf in Sagsai. Travelers can also arrange visits with eagle-hunting families or homestays and join a hunter on an exploratory expedition on horseback into the countryside with his bird. The experience rarely results in any prey for the hunter or eagle (in part, due to seasonality as tourists visit in the warm, summer months whereas eagles hunt during the cold, winter months when animals also have thick winter fur to turn into hats, but also because prey is increasingly scarce and difficult to catch), but still holds great attraction for tourists. It furthermore provides the hunting family with a minimal source of income and thus the financial incentive to continue to practice and promote eagle hunting among future generations as a cultural tradition dating back thousands of years. Moreover, safeguarding eagle hunting through tourism provides a revenue boost for the local government. Despite the nomination file making a contentious claim, however, that the government and local authorities are helping Kazakh eagle hunters by promoting ecotourism and generating income for the communities thereby enabling them to continue practicing falconry and dissuading them from migrating to towns, the submission neglects to analyze the conditions of poverty, level of development, or educational background at the local-, meso-, or macro-scales in Mongolia and consider whether promoting falconry as a means for development might also weaken incentive among local people for formal schooling or other indicators and measures of social progress.

Besides the nomination file, other documents are available on-line that were produced by UNESCO staff or presented to UNESCO by interested parties (e.g. states, specialists, special interest groups, and affiliated organizations) in conjunction with the nomination of falconry to the List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Reports demonstrate little understanding or consideration for the implications of a nomination and do not raise objective concerns about why or whether to ensure transmission to future generations. For instance, one author writes that there is no class structure associated with the practice of falconry (he is unclear about Europe and Asia) and that falconers in most countries come from all economic ranks of society even though today’s Kazakh eagle hunting families largely concentrate in remote rural areas of Bayan Ulgii and rank among the poorer and poorest people in Mongolia. Other experts rate falconry as a low-impact, low-stress, welfare-friendly, and sustainable fieldsport that offers a long list of benefits and advantages, including a reconnection with the natural world and no wounded prey (in the wild, eagles apparently catch their prey properly and kill it quickly or it will escape unhurt). It is also promoted as a form of wildlife management that is relevant to society and makes important contributions to natural resource conservation and science.

All this results in a high-level of positive acclaim for eagle hunting as a great cultural tradition that has been and, clearly, should continue to be passed down from generation to generation. Despite UNESCO’s requisite criterion for an action plan, however, it is questionable whether one exists for falconry in Mongolia (or elsewhere), and seems clear that, if present, it is not being adhered to or implemented. In addition, the nomination file does not analyze existing threats to the hunter, the bird, the quarry, or the environment, or include a risk management strategy that counters pressures such as tourism, disease, and other factors. Furthermore, there is no assessment of the needs of the falconer, the bird of prey, the prey species, or hunting area to ensure compliance with international human and animal rights standards and that all welfare issues are being met.

This last matter is a particularly troublesome oversight. While experts at a symposium on the inscription of falconry to the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage detail the importance of animal welfare legislation in developed countries, nowhere in their report or the nomination file is consideration given to the depth of protection in law for falconry in Mongolia or other developing countries. In European and North American countries, eagle hunting is typically governed by a series of international conventions and treaties like the International Convention for the Protection of Birds, the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) to which falconry is specifically permitted by an extensive set of federal standards and regulations. Concerns particular to animal welfare at the national and local level from facilities, equipment, and practices to conditions, health, and security are further addressed by other complementary legal instruments, anti-cruelty statutes, strategies, and non-regulatory measures that prevent mistreatment to animals and are relevant to a species’ needs. The result is a rigorous and highly structured system that aims to not only regulate the conduct of falconry, but also prohibits animal cruelty, requires proper veterinary services, and carries penalties for the infliction of needless physical suffering, damage, distress, pain, and hunger.

Matters are different, however, in the context of a developing country where animal welfare issues have limited currency. While Mongolia has ratified the CITES and CBD conventions, officials have little understanding of international conventions and other collaborative resources that are important to animal welfare and lack the capacity to administer their obligations. Mongolia also lacks sufficient legislature to condemn offenders of illicit or inhumane practices. Furthermore, there is no system to discourage the wrongful treatment of animals or to regulate training practices and the conditions of the birds in captivity, except the community of other eagle hunters. As a result, eagles are increasingly used as commodities for tourism with needless cruelty to the prey species.

Indiscriminate claims about the virtues of falconry and a need to safeguard the past are likely to go unfounded or have nuances in developing regions of the world and among poor communities, especially in areas that are emergent tourism settings like Bayan Ulgii, where the product and primary resource is nature- and culture-based, which means it is tenuous and shared; where ecological and economic problems are critical; where governance is poor; where income and employment benefits often accrue highly unevenly; and, where there are few livelihood options available. While UNESCO advocates raising public awareness for the protection and revitalization of traditional cultural practices, it also has a responsibility to document and adequately consider the causes and consequences of its support. In addition, UNESCO should research and share information about the communities, the environment, and existing practices that is relevant, current, and unbiased, and not discriminatory, self-serving, or out-of-date. In the case of traditional cultural expressions involving the use of wild animals, however, approving a nomination based on partial and misleading information raises important ethical questions and concerns about UNESCO’s role in safeguarding cultural traditions as opposed to supporting or promoting animal cruelty, neglect, or abuse. Furthermore, providing uncritical endorsement of eagle hunting in the Altai as it currently stands arguably violates Mongolia and UNESCO’s own values and mission to protect critical natural habitat and Cultural and Natural World Heritage of outstanding universal value to humanity and part of the common heritage of mankind.


1 Falconry is a centuries old ethnic Kazakh tradition in Bayan Ulgii, a poor aimag in Western Mongolia.

2Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is a critical natural habitat area and World Heritage site.

3Golden eagles are used traditionally for hunting foxes, whose fur is used to make hats and for warmth.

4In captivity, eagles often sit idle inside the hunter’s home or tied up to a ger outside.

5Eagle hunting was inscribed to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

6Intangible heritage typically comprises handicraft, song and dance. Falconry is the only inscription involving wild animals.

7An eagle hunter rides across the craggy, barren and mountainous landscape en route to the Golden Eagle Festival.

8To play without passion is inexcusable. ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

The festival features eagle hunting and other contests like Kokbar, a traditional form of tug of war.


An eagle hunter ties a jess, a pair of leather ankle bands and a leash-like rope, to prevent his eagle from flying away.