Kazakh Eagles Take Flight as Tradition Returns

ELAN TAU, Kazakhstan - High on a hillside overlooking the sweeping central Asian steppe, a horseman gazes down on the snow-dusted plain, alert for a signal.

Far below, a man carefully takes a quivering fox from a wooden crate and releases it. The fox gratefully races away from the noise and people around it, tearing across the steppe.

At this signal, a gigantic golden eagle glides effortlessly from the horseman's arm towards the plain, circling once or twice as it soars higher.

Movement on the steppe. A new urgency in the eagle's flight. A tilt of its wings as it seeks out the thing that caught its eye. The fox in its sights. The hunt is on.

The spectators gasp as the bird of prey swoops like lightning and with a tearing of its terrifying, razor-sharp talons the fox's run is over.

Kazakhstan's national sport of Sayat -- or hunting with golden eagles -- is experiencing a revival.

Few spectators attended the annual national Sayat championship at Elan Tau, which lies 150 km from Kazakhstan's main city of Almaty, for the eagles cannot easily concentrate on their quarry in the presence of crowds.

But the organisers made sure photographers and television crews came in their droves. The berkut -- Kazakh for golden eagle -- is a powerful national emblem, and one of which this vast former Soviet nation is extremely proud.



THE SPORT OF KHANS

"Since ancient times Kazakhs have followed this sport, this art, and we continue to respect it," said Sailybekuly Zhunis, a sprightly 82-year-old in colourful national costume, who still rides gracefully and supports a six kg berkut on his arm with the agility of a young man.

"Even the Khans kept eagles," he said, referring to the ancient rulers of the steppe. "I've been raising eagles since I was a young man."

Occasionally a fox escapes the lethal dive and careers across the plain, visible for miles across the white background.

At this, a group of up to four "berkutchi" give chase, galloping at full tilt with berkuts held high on their right arms. The birds stand with their wings unfurled for balance and await the order to fly.

"Kazakhs once hunted with eight different types of bird of prey, of which the berkut was just one," said Omizak Zholombet, a Kazakh journalist and Sayat aficionado, who was master of ceremonies at the national championship.

But he added wistfully that this was in the days when the steppe could still support the huge wildlife population needed to feed these immense birds.



HUNGER THREATENS EAGLES' SURVIVAL

Until recently, he said, Kazakhstan was home to three million saygak, or wild antelope. Now just 150,000 remain.

The rest fell victim to hunters with rifles, loss of habitat through industrialisation and the subsequent pollution and environmental vandalism that characterised Kazakhstan in the Soviet era.

Up to a million saygak are thought to have died in a single accident in 1985, when a Proton rocket taking off from the Soviet space centre at Baikonur, now leased by Russia, crashed and spilled fuel over thousands of square kilometres, devastating the steppe's fragile ecology.

Fifteen horsemen and 15 berkut took part in the recent Sayat championship. One of the owners, who says he has trained eagles for 25 years, believed his impressive bird was worth $12,000. But he stressed that the money was not important to him.

The Sayat is one of many ancient traditions which newly independent Kazakhstan is proudly bringing back to life. And the revival may have come not a moment too soon for the majestic but deadly hunters.

"There are only a few berkut left," Zholombet said. "They are hungry birds and there is not much wildlife left...they are dying of hunger."