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Hunting is one of the Kazakhs' great passions. One shoots ducks with his shotgun, another stalks bigger game on horseback. Most hunters these days respect the hunting seasons, but unfortunately poaching still occurs-not only for food, but also out of sheer hunting fever.

Tourists with enough money, as well as high-ranking state guests, can arrange to go hunting with birds or dogs. In winter, when the wild animals' fur is thick and valuable, Kazakhs set out into the steppe or mountains on horseback with a golden eagle (berkut) on their arm. This kind of hunting, mostly for steppe foxes and wolves, used to be a rich man's pleasure. Only they could afford golden eagles, imperial eagles or saker falcons for hunting: the price of a trained golden eagle could be as much as five or six camels.

These days, there are only a few people who still practise the art of training hunting birds. A berkutshe must have great physical strength, knowledge, patience and absolute authority in order to tame and train a heavy eagle or fierce falcon. This man is held in great esteem, his profession surrounded by myth. People used to be convinced that an infertile woman could be cured if she spent the night with a berkutshe. Her husband would personally take her to this "therapy"...

Eight different kinds of eagles, falcons and hawks were used for hunting, and noble dogs often accompanied the royal birds. The borzoi-or tazy-is considered the epitome of greyhound breeding in Kazakhstan. These dogs have excellent eyesight, develop phenomenal speed, and are enduring and very courageous. Even snow leopards were hunted with these dogs. They were so highly valued that one borzoi could replace 47 horses as a dowry. Another similar breed, the saluki, is also used.

The berkutchy first spends weeks among the remote eyries of the Jungar, Altai or Tien Shan mountain ranges, where he risks his life to steal an eaglet from its nest. From then on a close relationship is established. The eagle ruler sleeps beside the eaglet for nights on end and feeds it by hand for a month. 'And they have a big appetite.' The eaglet is hooded early on to make it totally dependent on the berkutchy, and the absolute trust which will last a lifetime is slowly built up. When the bird has bonded, the eagle ruler begins to train it to fly from his arm and return. The first kill cements the relationship. 'The bird is given all the meat so it understands that man and eagle are partners in hunting and are not in competition.'

Time and boundless patience complete the process. 'You go hunting together, and it only takes a couple of months for the eagle to understand the advantages of the partnership. An eagle properly trained is reliable and does not turn on its ruler. But if it is treated badly, or even if it is treated with harsh words and contempt, it can turn. It is like a dog or a man. Treated properly it is grateful - if not, it turns.'

There are less than a hundred registered professional berkutchi in the country, although many more Kazakhs hunt with eagles as a hobby. A trained eagle will catch rabbits and small deer for its ruler, kill foxes that threaten his sheep, and even confront wolves. 'If the bird is big you can hunt for a big wolf. They fly straight into the face and go for the eyes, the neck, the snout. They do not attack from behind. In the wild they take sheep and even cattle, but they fear humans.'

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins