This is a story about a tradition as old as Mongolia itself – eagle hunting. A generous heritage passed from father to son, generation after generation by the beautiful people of the Altai mountains and Mongolian hills. This is also a story about Konki, an eagle hunter who lives near Deluun Village in the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia, who decided to pursue the craft after his father’s passing 2 years ago. In spite of being a herder for the entirety of his life, he is now accompanied by his cousin, Onei, and his friends on the tireless mission to carry forward the tradition he inherited from his father.

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This was taken early in the morning. There was smoke coming from the chimney of Konki’s house so I asked him and his son to climb on the roof and pose for a couple of photos.

What specifically drew you to Mongolia and wanting to document this project?

I’ve seen photos of Mongolia in the past and have always been interested in the nomadic people who live there, specifically the eagle hunters. Mongol culture is really fascinating since there isn’t anywhere else in the world where eagle hunters exist. In many aspects, they are still living in the past since they are practicing the same traditions their ancestors practiced.

My friend Cale Glendening who is a film maker had been wanting to create a passion project documenting eagle hunters in Mongolia. While researching potential stories, he met a local guide that introduced him to Konki, a young man whose father was an eagle hunter for over 30 years. It wasn’t till after his dad passed away a few years ago that he decided to carry on the tradition. That story definitely made him want to find out more about preservation of these ancient traditions and why Konki decided on choosing this path. Since I had been very interested in Mongolian culture, I was was very interested in getting involved with documenting it through photographs.

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Could you tell us more about your experience the relationship you had with Konki?

Mongolians are very friendly people. We spent the first day just getting to know their daily life and learning more about Konki and his family. When we explained that we wanted to document the story of the eagle hunting tradition and show it to the world, they were very open to our photo and video requests. Most of the communications was initially done with the help of a guide who was translating for us, but after a few days I would just communicate with gestures.

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Every morning, a couple of Konki’s friends would come from nearby villages to teach him all about eagle hunting. This was one of the sunrises before they took off to go hunting.

What’s the relationship between eagle and hunter?

The eagles are actually found in the wild by the hunters who climb up to their nests and set traps. Once they are captured, the training process begins with the eagle getting used to the hunter’s voice and tones when they are given specific commands. They are also rewarded on a regular basis with treats (mainly meat) to domesticate them and give them incentives for coming back when the hunters call for them. The eagles are always blindfolded except when hunting and eating and are usually tied up to a rock outside at night. The whole training process can take as little as two months before the eagles are ready to start hunting. The hunter’s always treated the eagles with great respect as they are such an integral part of the Mongolian people’s lives and culture.

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How does the hunting process work?

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Normally there is one chaser and multiple hunters. The chaser’s job is to go down the mountain and scout the land for animals while the hunters wait at the top. Once the chaser sees an animal (rabbits, foxes, wolves etc), he calls the eagle which flies down to grab the animal to throw it against a rock to immobilize or kill it. After that, they return to the hunter for a treat. For larger animals, they have multiple eagles that work together. The eagle doesn’t actually bring the prey to the hunters so they have to go out and pick it up. A fruitful hunting trip usually consist of two or more animals brought back.  

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Your lighting in this series is beautiful, can you tell us about the gear you used and your setup?

Main bag: ThinkTank Airport Security 2.0
Shoulder bag: ThinkTank Retrospective 30
Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
Lens: Canon 24-70 II
Main Light: 35″ Octabox with AlienBees B800
Battery pack: Vagabond Mini 120VAC
Light stand: 10-foot light stand

The lighting setup was very simple – just one off camera light with the octabox.

 

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This was right before the sunset on the top of a hill after a long day of hunting. The light was absolutely perfect.

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This is a shot Konki arriving home from a day of hunting when the sky went crazy with majestic colors.
This is a shot Konki arriving home from a day of hunting when the sky went crazy with majestic colors.