Kazakhs chase history with ancient eagle hunting

Sun Dec 6, 2009 4:42pm EST
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By Maria Golovnina

CHENGELSY GORGE, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - When it snows on the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan, hunters saddle up and gallop off with eagles on their arms in search of prey.

The men follow the animal tracks in the snow then release their giant eagles into the air to snatch up foxes and rabbits.

"Hunting is my life," said Baurzhan Yeshmetov, a 62-year-old man in an embroidered velvet tunic, his eagle perched on his arm staring menacingly into the foggy hills.

"This eagle is my life," added Yeshmetov who, when not hunting, works as a taxi driver in Kazakhstan's financial center Almaty.

Many in Kazakhstan see eagle hunting as a symbol of their nation's nomadic past and a throwback to an oft-romanticized era before these steppes turned into a geopolitical battleground between competing regional powers Russia and China.

Two decades of economic growth that followed Kazakhstan's independence from Moscow's rule in 1991 have also created a generation of young Kazakhs whose search for a new identity has led them to look deeper into history.

"In Soviet days all of this was forgotten because everyone had to believe in communism," said Dinara Serikbayeva who runs an eagle-hunting museum in the village of Nura.

Speaking in the Soviet-built House of Culture building where functionaries once lectured villagers about a fast-approaching communist paradise, she said eagle hunting has turned into a symbol of this new quest for identity.   Continued...

<p>A participant rides with his eagle during an annual hunting competition in Chengelsy Gorge, some 150 km (93 miles) east of Almaty, December 5, 2009. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov</p>