Eagle hunting is a sacred profession where a person uses an eagle as a companion during hunting trips.
It’s a pretty fascinating practice since eagles are known to have a mind of their own right from birth. And to get one to listen to your calls while chasing down foxes, bears, and wolves is quite an incredible feat.
Zamanbol is a 14-year-old eagle hunter, and she’s one of the 10 female eagle hunters left in all of Mongolia.
For thousands of years, this culture has been passed down from father to son. But today, only a few small groups of natives keep this tradition alive. There are about 400 keepers among the nomadic tribes in the country, and only 10 of them are women.
When Zamanbol was a kid, she used to go hunting with his grandfather, who was a famous eagle keeper in his time. He taught her tricks of eagle whispering, and under his guidance, the girl learned to hunt wolves and small prey with the eagle. When his grandfather died, Zamanbol inherited his eagle, and she has been training ever since.
“After my grandfather’s death, I wanted to continue his way,” she told the New York Times.
Female eagles are often the preferred choice for hunting companions because they’re larger, typically weighing 15 pounds more than the males. Their training starts once a hunter picks an eaglet off its nest. The pair would then form a strong bond that would last for many years.
As the eagles get older, they memorize the pitch of their hunter’s voices and become deeply attached to them. They’re released into the bushes to scan for prey, and they’ll circle back when they’ve found something at the sound of their owner’s voice. These birds make hunting a lot easier and more enjoyable for the native Mongolians.
After some years, the eagles are eventually released into the wild, which can be a heartbreaking experience for many hunters who have bonded with the animals.
In a world being overtaken by technology, Zamanbol is among the youths trying to keep ancient Mongolian traditions such as eagle hunting alive.
But like every other teenager in the country, Zamanbol goes to school on the weekdays. On Saturdays, she dons her handmade fur clothing, gets on her horse, and walks for miles in deep snow beyond mountains to train with her brother.
Although Zamanbol does her best to preserve parts of their culture, she balances that out by being involved with technology. She often brings her friends during her hunting trips and takes selfies with her eagle to share on Facebook.
Photographer Leo Thomas traveled all the way to the Altai region of Western Mongolia to learn about these people’s amazing culture.
There, he got the opportunity to capture Zamanbol and his brother, Barzabai, 26, during their hunting trips.
While learning about their culture and capturing beautiful snapshots of their life, Leo realized something:
“While he’s living in the outdoors surrounded by family, incredible nature and animals, I’m sitting more than 60% of my time in front of a screen. A pretty basic comparison, but it made me think,” he said.
Take a look at some of Leo Thomas’s incredible snaps of Zamanbol’s eagle hunting escapades and the beautiful Mongolian landscape.
Every year, the Altai Kazakhs hold a Golden Eagle Hunting Festival to keep the culture alive. During this event, eagle hunters demonstrate the bond they share with their majestic birds.
Click on the video below to see what goes on during the spectacular festival.