Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Eagles Are Coming! (And so are the wolves...)

Solburun 2008: Kyrgyz Traditional Hunting Festival by Jane

Animal Rights in Kyrgyzstan are essentially nonexistent. This post contains a couple of graphic images. However, there are a lot of really incredible and beautiful things to see/read in this post as well... just be forewarned. Additionally, the complete set of more than fifty photos from this day can be viewed by CLICKING HERE.

Festivals with hundreds of people in attendance aren’t exactly desolate… unless they’re held in rural Kyrgyzstan. In October 2008, two years before our Desolation Travel project was conceived, DT team members Ben, Nicola and I (along with several of our coworkers), travelled about five hours east of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (where we were living at the time) to a site just outside of the village of Bokonbaevo, where Solburun – the national traditional hunting festival – was being held.
Photobucket Photobucket
Left: Nicola, Ben, coworker; Right: Jane and coworker

Solburun is an annual event, which attracts eagle hunters, falconers, handlers of Kyrgyz wolfhounds (called Taigan; similar to the Russian Borzoi), archers, and skilled horsemen from both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I had expected maybe ten eagles at the most, but was pleasantly surprised to discover at least fifty golden eagles present with their handlers, in addition to uncountable hawks, dogs and horses. I got my favorite pictures of the day before the competitions began, when elderly men on horseback lounged around with eagles on their arms, chatting with one another.



This man was one of the Kazakh eagle hunters;
they had incredible outfits.

I didn’t get very good shots of the first events, as the camera I had with me at the time didn’t have that great of a zoom. We watched first hawks and then wolf hounds compete to take down pigeons, rabbits and even a fox. The hawks were incredibly impressive and good at what they did. The dogs were less impressive, mainly because there was only one poor fox. It was killed after the first round, and its maimed carcass dragged behind a horse for subsequent rounds. It was rather distressing to watch, and the poor dogs obviously felt as though they’d been teased when they discovered that their “prey” was already dead.

When they began to launch the eagles (mainly against rabbits, although some were also launched against ye olde dead fox), it began to get more interesting. Ben and I climbed up the side of the mountain to the place from whence the eagle hunters were launching their birds, and I was able to get some rather decent shots:

Of course, these eagles are trained, but they are still wild animals and do not always do as they should. One turned away from its rabbity target and wheeled directly backwards at me and Ben. Oblivious to the people shouting at us to get out of the way, we stood in awe, not even photographing, as it swooped straight towards us. It landed on the ground roughly four feet in front of me. (Later we were to learn why we should have run, but as you will see, the entire day was filled with much foolishness upon our parts.)

While we were crouched on the mountainside, eagles being launched for attack over our heads, we ingratiated ourselves with the small local press pack. Suddenly there was excitement among the press as one shouted, “Davai! Volk!” (Come on! Wolf!) and began bounding off the mountain. They were bringing out the wolf.

What wolf? Well, we had been told us that there would be a captive wolf at the festival, which would be released for the eagles to hunt. The man who had told us this was Ishenbek – a renowned Kyrgyz eagle hunter and our host for the weekend. He had told us that he was the only person – from both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – who was willing to pit his eagle (a beautiful bird named Tuman) against the wolf at the festival, and said that she’d killed three or four wolves in the wild. All day we had anxiously awaited the arrival of the wolf, and with excitement, we scrambled down the mountain with the rest of the press.
Ben and I eagerly await the wolf

The press pack were allowed beyond the barricade behind which spectators had to stand. Ben and I – sticking close to our newly made friends in the press – found ourselves standing, cameras poised, not far from the wooden box wherein the captive wolf was held. At one point the alleged professional wolf handler (wearing a shirt which read: Kyrgyzstan – Country of Tourism no less!) came over and told us, “You do know there is a *wolf* in there? There might be problems.” No one moved.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable amount of time waiting, they brought out the wolf hounds. As only Ishenbek had been willing to pit his eagle against the wolf, there had been a change of plans. It had been decided to have the wolf tired out by the wolfhounds before setting the eagles after it; this way, more eagle-handlers had agreed to participate in the eagle vs. wolves part of the event.

While I feel that eagle vs. wolf is acceptable, I wasn’t too keen on one wolf taking on a pack of trained wolfhounds. Then they released the wolf, and my heart sank; he was chained to a ball of iron. He could run around and even drag the iron ball behind him, but he could not escape. (I suppose the iron ball was probably a good thing for the dumbass journalists – myself and my companions included – as the wolf immediately charged us upon exiting his box. Most of us moved out of its way, as we do have some sense of self preservation. Meanwhile, Ben didn’t move at all, and just stood there taking photos. I wish I’d gotten one of him almost getting mauled. He had a rather narrow escape. The pictures below were taken by Ben as the wolf advanced...

Then they released the wolfounds. They released them in teams of two, starting with the least experienced and moving up to the most experienced. It was utterly heart-wrenching to watch the poor wolf, tied to a chain, defending himself against pair after pair of wolfhounds. I got some very bizarre looks from my journalist comrades for cheering loudly for the wolf in Russian. I must say that despite his handicap, the wolf gave better than he got, injuring numerous dogs. He was still standing at the end... or at least he was until Mr. Kyrgyzstan: Country of Tourism pinned him to the ground with what was essentially a two pronged pitch fork around his neck.

Once the wolf was tired out, he was taken to the center of the field and left on his chain to await attack by eagles. His mouth was also tied shut. Ishenbeck strongly disapproved of all of this, having wanted to prove himself and Tuman against a strong, healthy and free wolf. Additionally, eagles are trained to not attack domestic animals. As such, a tied wolf looks much like a domesticated dog, which rather confused the eagles. Not to mention that they’d had to wait an extra long time for the dogs to try to tire out the wolf. The eagles were cranky. And they were coming.

The first eagle that was launched towards the wolf was one of the Kazakh eagles. It started down toward the wolf, then veered sharply to the right and directly into a crowd of spectators sitting on the side of the hill, attacking one man and sending his companions fleeing for their lives. It was too far away for me to get good quality pictures, but I did get some where you can at least make out what was happening.

Madness took over. Everyone (spectators and journalists alike) ran towards the injured man – including Ben and I, who shamelessly sought to get photos of his wounds. (He was bleeding profusely from the side of his face, but unfortunately, I didn’t get any shots of it.) The Kazakh eagle again swooped down towards the crowd just as Ishenbek launched Tuman toward the wolf. Tuman, heroine of the day, swerved off target and took down the Kazakh eagle, which made Ishenbek quite proud.
Ishenbek holding Tuman
after she tackled the Kazakh eagle.

While everyone was clustered around Ishenbek and the Kazakh eagle hunter, watching them disengage their birds (Tuman was fine, but she injured the Kazakh eagle), another Kyrgyz eagle hunter launched his bird at the wolf. I didn’t get a good shot, as I was too busy watching Tuman and the Kazakh eagle and battling the crowd. It was hard to tell what happened between the eagle and the wolf. The eagle definitely scored a hit, although it’s hard to tell how successful she would have been had the wolf been unfettered.

And with that, the festival was over.

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