Kyrgyzstan's Golden Eagle Hunters: In Search of a Legend

PHOTO: In the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan, golden eagles are not pets. They are hunting partners.PlayKarson Yiu/ABC
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From the sky, the golden eagle is one of the most lethal hunters on the planet.

On the ground, in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan, it seemed that grown men and young boys everywhere had a raptor on his arm, his shoulder or, sometimes, his head. But these eagles are not pets. They are hunting partners.

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Our journey started at dawn with our guide, a young hunter named Chingis. We drove into the foothills of the Tian Sham mountains range to catch a wild eagle. He said it would be easy.

When his Soviet-era jeep got stuck, we set out on foot, climbing through an arid landscape, so dry it is shocking when we stumble straight into a cannabis field. We then head up a ridge, where Chingis set up his trap with some simple netting and a dove as bait.

Chingis was hoping for a young adult eagle. Eagles raised in the wild make the best hunters. They can spot their prey from miles above. We are told if we move a muscle our hunt is over.

Suddenly, we watched a bird dive for the trap. Chingis went to check.

It was not the eagle he wanted but a falcon. It is still good for hunting smaller prey, he told us, and took it home.

In Chingis' vast backyard, Kyrgyz boys and eagles grow up together. They carry eagles and falcons on their shoulders when they're as young as 6 or 7. When we asked an 8-year-old boy name Simuk if he was scared of the bird, a translator told us he said, "Of course I'm not scared. I trained her all by myself."

An eagle's wingspan can be seven-and-a-half feet across – think of an NBA player and add some talons, which are strong enough to kill a wolf.

But instead of seeing eagles hunt, we see them posing with paying tourists. It seems golden eagles are doing more photo ops than hunting these days. In fact, they are a big tourist attraction for the country.

The eagles earn enough money to support entire communities, and they are considered part of Kyrgyz families.

"I love my bird more than my wife," said Merlan, one of the country's most well-known eagle trainers.

Despite the love, the eagles are transported here by questionable means -- most often they travel in the trunks of cars.

One day during our journey, Chingis took us to see his idol, Talgar, a hunter's hunter. His eagle, Tumara, is known in Kyrgyzstan as the "ultimate eagle." We found Talgar at home with his family, not a tourist in sight.

He was in the middle of training a new eagle, which was still tense around people. The eagle's features bristle, a sign he doesn't yet fully trust Talgar.

Talgar told us an eagle can feel your pulse and sense whether or not you are nervous when holding one.

But Talgar was the picture of calm. Still, in a split second the young eagle attacked for apparently no reason – a talon striking Talgar on his palm and drawing blood. Talgar said it was not too painful and entirely normal for a young eagle in training.

Even a famous eagle hunter has a hovering mother, who cleaned Talgar's cut the Kyrgyz way – with a shot of vodka.

But soon a surprising thing happened: The eagle started to eat out of Talgar's hand. These animals are picky and survive on fresh meat. Letting Talgar feed him was a big breakthrough, but Talgar said he knew the eagle wasn't ready to hunt with him yet.

His beloved Tumara, on the other hand, who is always ready, has been Talgar's hunting partner for nine years. Their bond is obvious. They go out every day, in part because having to catch her own food keeps them both sharp.

When she is not out hunting, Tumara often wears a small leather cap to cover her eyes.

Together with his young son, Talgar hiked into the hills. When a sacrificial rabbit was spotted far below, Talgar took off Tumara's cap and she knew the hunt was on.

With the rabbit in her talons, Tumara waited patiently, trained to capture but not to kill until Talgar is at her side. Her skills help feed his family all winter.

Once Tumara escaped. Talgar searched the skies but she was gone. Days later, she flew back to him on her own and had stayed there ever since. It is proof enough that this pair is the real thing.