When Russian photographer and filmmaker Nick Bondarev, in collaboration with the Milles Studio team, first travelled to Mongolia’s Altai region to document the Kazakh berkutchi eagle hunters, he was unaware that his experience would be so fulfilling that he’d be returning for a second round with the captivating falconers of the north.
“The hunters make an unforgettable impression in the first few seconds of making their acquaintance” Bondarev recollects. With their decorative clothing and regal composure, the berkutchi and their eagle counterparts emit a magnetic presence that penetrates through video and photo.
The cultural custom of hunting with eagles has been passed down through some 6,000 years of generation knowledge but even with those skills built into a hunter’s gene code, developing a relationship with a talon-bearing raptor is not a simple task. Founded upon the principles of respect and trust, an understanding between the two must be established early on for a successful unification. “Patience and skill are paramount,” Bondarev cautions, “A bird of prey can seriously injure a person. Berkutchi hunters often suffer a few attacks at the outset.”
But once a mutual understanding has been established, the berkutchi and eagle will learn to communicate with each other, creating a tight, almost intuitive bond. Their companionship will endure through several hunting excursions over the course of 10-30 years before the berkutchi sever ties, releasing their winged companion back into the wild.
“The Berkutchi skill is a multifaceted art full of mysterious secrets,” Bondarev shares. “But the main components that help a person break the pride of the ruler of heaven are patience, perseverance, a deep knowledge of nature and, of course, experience.”