Kazakhstan’s lone female eagle hunter
By Shamil Zhumatov
Ahead of International Women’s Day, Reuters decided to prepare a feature story about an unusual woman. We filmed Makpal Abdrazakova, apparently the only female golden eagle hunter in Kazakhstan. I’ve known Makpal for many years through a variety of hunting competitions. I called her home in the village of Aksu-Ayuly, central Kazakhstan, and we quickly agreed to a photo shoot within the next few days, as she had to leave to participate in a regional festival in the south of the country.
A heavy snowstorm blanketed our path. Kazakh authorities often shut down inter-city roads during harsh weather, as on this occasion. Our time frame was shrinking. As soon as the travel ban was lifted, we hit the road. After a quick night drive across Almaty, we turned north. The GPS kindly announced: “Keep driving for the next 500 kilometers (311 miles).” This made us laugh. We had to drive a total of 870 kilometers (540 miles) and were hoping to make it in about 10 hours. We finally did.
Our visit to Makpal’s house was an example of the ancient tradition of Kazakh nomadic hospitality. You will never be asked about your business before a warm dinner, usually late in the evening. Our attempts to spend the night in the village hotel were immediately rejected.
We decided to document Makpal at home on the first day and training a bird outside Aksu-Ayuly on the second day. During a short interview, Makpal told us how she became a berkutchi, the Kazakh word for a hunter who works with an eagle.
“Eagle hunting in my family began with my father, Murat, who learned the traditions from elders in Almaty region,” said Makpal, who became involved at the age of 13. “At that time, only my father handled the bird. I began to feed her, but I didn’t get too close. When I grew used to her, my father got the approval and blessing of elders for my berkutchi career. Since then, I have been handling my Akzhelke. She is 10 now.”
The Kazakh eagle is one of the world’s fiercest, with a wingspan of 6.6 feet, razor-sharp talons and the ability to dive at the speed of an express train — up to 190 miles per hour).
“The bird can be difficult, but if she gets used to her master, who tames her, she learns,” said Makpal. “She begins to understand human language, and further training is easy. If the bird has a good relationship with someone, she begins to see the person within her master. People often ask me if it is difficult to be the only female among men hunters. I’ve grown accustomed to this. Elders and respected hunters blessed me some time ago and I’m still getting their support. They teach me things and now welcome me for competitions. We hope that in future the number of women berkutchi will grow. It will be good for the sport.”
Makpal, 25, recently completed her lawyer education in Karaganda. Asked how she plans to combine office work with bird handling, she said “I don’t need to give up being a berkutchi. I will do both things at once.”