Kazakh woman takes on eagle hunting

Clad in fur hat and embroidered tunic like those worn by her nomadic ancestors, 19-year-old Makpal Abdrazakova is putting on the most important accessory of berkutchi or eagle-hunter - a special belt.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2006, 00:00 AM IST

London, Mar 29: Clad in fur hat and embroidered tunic like those
worn by her nomadic ancestors, 19-year-old Makpal
Abdrazakova is putting on the most important accessory of
berkutchi or eagle-hunter - a special belt.

The only professional female eagle-hunter in Kazakhstan, Makpal has
inherited it from her grandfather - a well-known berkutchi
himself.

Her father Murat, hands her the golden eagle and now
Makpal is ready to compete Bearing golden eagle on the
leather-gloved forearm, she rides a horse, followed by
curious looks of the audience - not accustomed to the sight
of a woman-berkutchi.

Hunting with eagles is a centuries-old Kazakh tradition
preserved by a handful of families who pass the skill from
generation to generation. Kazakhs believe that they used
the eagle before they invented bows and arrows.

But this ancient sport was always practised exclusively
by men. Today Makpal is the only woman competing with men
in the art of eagle hunting.

She stands in the line of men - participants of the
eagle-hunting contests - at the competition opening
ceremony.

After greetings read by the organisers berkutchi holding
their eagles, huddle on a snowy hill, some murmuring
incantations and stroking birds' smooth feathers.

A fox, released from a wooden crate in the valley, is
spotted, and in a single gesture, the hunters unleash the
leather straps attached to the eagles' legs, sending the
birds into the air. The hunt is on.

With a wingspan of 2 metres (6.6 feet), a curved beak and
razor-sharp talons, the golden eagle can dive at the speed
of an express train -- up to 300 km an hour (190 mph).

With its piercing eyes fixed on a frightened fox, the
golden eagle swoops down from the sky, its huge wings
blending into the shadows of the red rocky steppe.

The fox tries to escape. But it's too late. A second
later, the eagle is perched on its back, tearing flesh and
squawking victoriously.

This scene in the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan might
seem like a throw-back to the times of Genghis Khan -- said
to have kept hundreds of eagles.

Winters can be freezing here with temperatures dropping
to -40 Celsius (-40 Fahrenheit), but the fans don't care.

The hunt which includes several stages. First eagles
must catch a hare, then a and then a wolf.

Now its Makpal's turn. She takes off a leather hood,
blindfolding her eagle and releases him in the air. The
fox, attacked by the giant bird, first escapes, but few
seconds later is caught by the eagle.

"I feel ok, I am glad," said Makpal, who got in the
fourth place this time competing against over thirty
experienced men.

A law student, Makpal leaves in a village of Aksu-Ayuly
in the north-east of Kazakhstan. She comes from a family
where art of eagle-hunting was passed from generation to
generation.

"I love eagles since my childhood. And I have started
taking care of them when I was 15. First I tried to feed
them and was putting traps to catch ground squirrels, to
give eagles fresh meat. When I was 15 my father and I went
to an eagle-hunting contest in the town of Yesyk. There the
elders have allowed me to take part in the competition as
well. They have agreed because they remembered that long
time ago there few women who hunted with eagles and dogs.
Since then I regularly take part in competitions," said
Makpal.

Her father Murat, was her first teacher of eagle
hunting. He thinks Makpal was born to become berkutchi.
"Not everyone can hold an eagle, it is very difficult.
Once when Makpal and I were in Astana, one girl wanted to
be photographed holding an eagle. But she couldn't hold it
until her father came to help and they were holding it
together. But Makpal could hold an eagle from the first
time, without any help, very easily. Everyone was amazed
with her," said Murat.

But despite Makpal's obvious talent for hunting with
eagles, her father had to ask special permission from
elders for his daughter to become berkutchi. The elders,
first in doubt, then remembered a legend that once upon a
time there was a famous woman berkutchi in the Kazakh
steppe and granted Makpal a permission. Since then she
participates in all the major eagle-hunting contests.

During 70 years of Soviet rule, eagle-hunting was
frowned upon because it was considered an elitist sport.

Today Kazakhs say the eagle -- depicted on the
country's national flag -- is a symbol of statehood and
independence.

Bureau Report

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