By 1999 I’d been serving on the Peregrine Fund Board for 15-years, and was purchasing Thinsulate, a product produced by 3M as an insulating material for my outerwear. Knowing the company’s interest in marketing, I requested an introduction to their marketing group and PR head. A face-to-face meeting was scheduled in Minneapolis, 3M’s headquarters, where I was able to explain the worldwide conservation efforts of the Peregrine Fund, based in Boise, Idaho, that protected endangered birds of prey and their habitat. With my ongoing distribution with Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and other high-end specialty stores, 3M was highly interested in supporting the proposal. I immediately called Dr. Bill Burnham, the President of The Peregrine Fund with the good news and enquired where in the world he might be interested in investing out efforts with 3M's support. Bill immediately suggested Outer Mongolia, where for over 1,000 years the Kazakhs have hunted with Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) with 6-foot wing spans. Whereas the ancient sport of falconry is practiced with falcons and hawks, the Kazakhs are the only culture in the world to do so with eagles. I knew this would be an adventure equal to the rally I’d raced in Papua New Guinea, and the 300-mile canoe expedition down the upper tributaries of the Amazon Basin.
As we began our planning we contacted a noted ornithologist from Taiwan, who served as a fellow Director on the PF board. He introduced us to Jalsa Urubshurow, a first-generation Mongolian, who grew up in New Jersey, and owned a highly respected eco-tour company by the name of Nomadic Expeditions. Jalsa was the first to introduce environmentally friendly travel to his ancestral home, which after seven decades of communist rule held its first free election in 1992. Unlike many underdeveloped countries where natural resources have been poorly managed Mongolia’s timber, ores and natural gasses have only been harvested in the last few decades. During this time it has been Jalsa's mission to try and help influence politicians and educators that development should proceed with conservation and sustainability at the forefront. The President of Mongolia depends on his Jalsa’s knowledge and input in those efforts. As a cultural preservation, he single-handily organized the Golden Eagle Festival, which enjoys worldwide recognition and prominence.
Arrival in the capitol:
Our flight took us from Boise, Idaho to San Francisco, Seoul Korea and finally Ulaanbaatar. Sheldon Severninghaus, a professor and expat from the US, met us upon our arrival in a cold capitol; it was November, and we were to experience single digit weather throughout our stay. We were driven to what must have been a grand hotel during the Soviet’s rule, the cavernous rooms wallpapered in velvet and ancient maroon carpeting emoted the vibe of a bygone era when regular guests were comprised of communist party officials.
We awoke to a cloudless November Sunday and decided to visit the local market. Of particular interest in the open table bazar were bronze and ceramic badges, once given to Soviet mothers for having children; the greater the number the more ornate the pin-able emblems became. Moving on to a major department store presenting rice-cookers and basic sundries, we saw four-cornered silk embroidered red hats trimmed in fox fur; we would discover similar headwear used by the Kazakh eagle hunters. Late in the afternoon we were taken to an auditorium to see folk dancing, contortionists, and throat singing. I’d never seen nor heard of the latter, which left me spellbound. A man with a Kobyz, a string instrument held by the knees and played with a bow, began singing in a guttural lower tone. After several verses a higher and independent octave emanated from his throat, so that the two harmonized as if two separate singers were performing. I came to learn that the art is called overtone chanting, in which the singer manipulates the resonances created as air travels from the lungs, past the vocal folds and out of his lips.
A day with Darwin:
On Monday morning we were graciously met by Dr. Bold, who at sixty-four years of age was a senior scientist and Academician of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, who received his Doctor of Science from the institute of Animal Ecology and Evolution from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He was a highly respected ornithologist who’d explored more of his country than any other biologist. Dr. Bold’s enthusiasm and pride for a gargantuan collection of avian corpses spoke volumes.
Dr. Ayurzana Bold (1936-2007)
The archive in which the petrified birds were kept was a huge room about the size of a collegiate basketball court. Encircling the perimeter were multiple level cubby holes one on top of another, in which a single carcass occupied each slot. The collection represented what must have been every avian species in Mongolia.
Bill commented to me that the attempt at stuffing or preserving the mummified birds was akin to the European and Russian collections from the 1700’s, such as Peter Simon Pallas, a Prussian zoologist/botanist from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences who from 1768-1774 worked in similar areas as Doctor Bold, such as Urals, West Siberia, Altay and Transbaikal.
A two-fold Conservation Goal:
Cultural: Our aim was to preserve the custom of falconry with Golden Eagles, as well as the birds themselves. Ülgii or Ölgii, is the farthest Western province in the Altai Mountain range where the vast steppe is home to one of the world's last surviving nomadic cultures. An estimated 25 to 40 percent of Mongolia's three-million population live as nomadic herders of sheep, cattle and horses. At the time of our visit, the newer generations of herders viewed eagles as a threat to their livestock. Given the opportunity Golden Eagles will prey upon lambs, goats, etc., and the herders were indiscriminately killing the raptors. Our mission was to help the younger populace view the Golden Eagles and their unique tie with falconry as a national treasure and cultural icon to be protected.
Scientific: Scientifically our intent was for the Peregrine Fund to establish an ongoing alliance with Mongolian biologists for the preservation of habitat and raptors in general. To aid with both endeavors Bill asked Dr. Bold to identify a promising young biologist who we could bring to America, to further his/her scientific studies at Boise State University. Dr. Bold selected a young man by the name of Nyambayar Batbayar or Nyamba for short. From 2000-2004 Nyamba worked as a research biologist for the Peregrine Fund and attended Boise State University to earn his master’s degree in raptor biology. He went on to earn a PHD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Oklahoma. Nyamba has authored a field guide to the common birds of Mongolia and numerous research papers that have influenced conservation policies.
Today, Nyamba is the Director and Research Biologist of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia and Research Associate of the International Crane Foundation based in Wisconsin. Fluent in English and Mongolian, he is editor-in-chief of the Mongolian Journal of Ornithology and Conservation.
Ülgii via Casablanca:
After two full days in Ulaanbaatar, we were ready to depart for Ülgii, the farthest western province of Mongolia. Our flight was scheduled for a 6:00 AM or so departure, but we arrived much earlier with no small degree of anticipation. Jalsa Urubshurow had arranged for us to meet with someone in Ülgii, who would accompany us throughout the adventure. Walking across the tarmac in a frigid overcast, we were motioned towards an aircraft looking like the tail-dragging Lockheed Electra 12A used in the iconic farewell scene separating lovers Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
The plane sat eight people with the well-worn seats slightly twisted in unique angles. Overhead reading lamps no longer functional dangled on cords freed long ago from their encasements. As we contemplated the safety of the aircraft and likelihood of arriving at our destination the pilot and co-pilot came aboard dressed in leather trench coats looking more like WWII German Luftwaffe officers than commercial airline employees. Without a glance at the passengers and a considerable air of superiority they strapped themselves in as if they were testing the most advanced jet aircraft of our time.
With the briefest of onboard pre-checks the propellers coughed to life, their irregular revolutions slowly beginning to synchronize and tug at our ship, while wing flaps responded to the pulling of levers. Believing that we could cheat death one more time, passengers and pilots focused complete concentration on a lurching takeoff down a frozen runway. In time we were flying above the snow shrouded Altai Mountain range that reaches 14,873’ in altitude and extends approximately 1,200 miles from the Gobi Desert to the West Siberian Plain through China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. [Daniel’s photo of plane’s window] We were headed to meet the Kazakhs of the Bayan-Ülgii, where the majority of the population were ethnic or Altaic Kazakhs, who’ve hunted with Golden Eagles for over 1,000 years. Dr. Bill Burnham, my photographer friend Daniel O’Neil and I sensed a grand adventure.
The lean diet layover:
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, one of only 16-paved airstrips in the entire country appeared below and our pilots wasted no time in touching down to refuel. Our propellers sputtered as we came to a stop upon a barren plane surrounded by mountains on every side, the door opened and the subzero temperatures that would accompany us throughout the rest of our stay rushed in. The thought of purchasing a hot snack from the single building outpost seemed a good idea. However, upon entering the minimalistic structure we were directed back outside to several rows of single filed objects about a foot long and three-inches in girth. There, we discovered what our fellow passengers considered to be a snack bar. Neatly aligned and placed directly on the tarmac like popsicles were raw and solidly frozen river fish for immediate consumption.
With tanks refueled we boarded, belted into the customized seats at our own discretion and jolted full-throttle down another icy runway hellbent to gain as much lift as possible. It became obvious that our unperturbed Commandants had hurdled the looming peaks many times before and thinking no longer of our demise we eyed the splendor of the Altai Chain with confidence.
From Ulgïï to the Kazakhs’ Hunting Grounds:
Landing in Ulgii, we were greeted by __________ a good friend and staff member of Jalsa’s organization. After a quick bite we walked through the local market where hardened locals sold their wares and showed fledgling Golden Eagles. [Show Eagle and toothless man] Excited to reach our destination we climbed into a four-Wheel Russian Lada [Photo of vehicle] and headed into the heart of the Altai Mountain range. The dirt roads and tight suspension of the vehicles were on par with the plane ride and we settled in for the 6-hour journey ahead. Studying first and then gingerly passing over semi-washed out bridges brought back memories of Papua New Guinea and the Camel Trophy. [Photo of bridge] The countryside itself was incredibly reminiscent of our southern Idaho topography, and the amazing vistas rolled into infinity. There were very few signs of life excepting an occasional lone herder using an oversized old Russian bicycle to oversee Bactrian camels, the two-hump variety. [Photo of Camels and bicycle]
Art of the Ger and First Night:
Arriving at our encampment, we met our Kazakh eagle hunter hosts, a hearty lot ranging from a twenty-something year-old young man to the elder of the clan who appeared to be in his 80’s. Gers were assigned, and we laid our 40-degree below freezing sleeping bags on cots Within. Each structure had a stove that burned coal with a chimney exiting the roof. As these are pastoral nomadic peoples, gers are made for disassembling and moving from one remote valley to the next, wherever fresh grasslands can nourish their herds. Collapsible wooden poles are connected to build the frame, upon which the walls and roofs made of sheep wool or fleece are attached. Akin to lighter weight Austrian boiled wool jackets, the sheared wool from the herder’s own flocks are home-spun and boiled. The individual hair or fibers of the sheep catch onto one another becoming forever naturally woven or matted. The natural lanolin oil from the sheep is impervious to water and the material is an excellent insulation in winter with cooling properties in the short summer months. [photo of gers] [Video clips]
Later that evening we gathered inside the cooking ger where a rich broth of mutton stew was on full boil and kerosene lanterns illuminated the jovial repartee with which we learned more about one another. It was a sheer delight to listen to Dr. (Jalsa’s main guy) explanation of the on-going conservation projects and the love for his native Mongolia. He was a very large man who had obviously been a great wrestler in his youth. Wrestling in Mongolia is a national pastime held in high regard and greatly enjoyed by participants and admiring public alike. It is customary for a visitor to wrestle the head of a household on friendly visits. One wonders if it is not the great distances between these pastoral families that creates the openness and mutual appreciation. Dr. Burnham, Bill, was able to share his vision on creating a synergistic and on-going relationship between Mongolia and the Peregrine Fund. With full stomachs and sincere appreciation for the friendships being formed, we agreed to reconvene at sunrise, each of us eagerly anticipating the first day’s hunt.
Soaring With Eagles:
The next morning like those to follow began before sunup with porridge and hot tea. We were surrounded by foothills framed by the endless Altai mountains. Each of us were assigned a saddle and horse, neither of which excited Bill who had a long abiding disdain for anything equine. [photo of saddle] Daniel’s and my only concern was the height of our steeds, which were incredibly short and I wondered aloud if they’d be able to carry us up and down the mountains ahead. [photo of Robert looking into his horse’s eyes] In the coming week I was to discover that our Mongolian ponies had the most powerful and sustained endurance of any horse I’d ever ridden. With this and other learning points that lay ahead we dutifully followed the hunters and their mounts as they traversed up the mountain sides. Several remained below, however, to ride the wide valleys flushing up game typically comprised of hare and fox. The eagle hunters have been known to take wolves and on a subsequent day we did in fact trail a wolf pack for a significant period. [Photo of Hunters on the ridges looking down into the valley] Becoming accustomed to the routine we also took turns flushing game in the valleys while hunters crested mountain tops. As with all falconry the hunters placed leather hoods on their raptor’s heads causing them to remain docile and nimbly balanced upon what looked like large wooden slingshots rested on the pommel of the saddle and supported by the Kazakh’s forearm. The apparatus was made from a two-foot or so wood handle with a two-pronged fork and leather strap spanning either side that served as the eagle’s perch. [Photo of perched eagle] Peering over the majestic granite pinnacles the hunters removed the hoods, after which the raptors scanned the valleys below. Unseen by our eyes the slightest movement of a hare or fox was easily spotted by the bird’s, whose binocular eyesight is eight-times more powerful than humans; eagles can see their prey from two-miles away. In what seemed a ritual movement they moved their heads rapidly from side to side and in circular motions so as to triangulate or measure the exact distance. Completing these calculations in mere seconds the majestic birds launched from the Kazakh’s arm to briefly soar upon the thermal updrafts that surged from below, but this buoyancy lasted only until they brought their wings close to their bodies, tucked legs and talons against their tails and gave themselves to gravity in the stoop (dive) that followed. Comparable to the Peregrine Falcon, the Golden Eagle is the second fastest animal in the world reaching speeds exceeding 150 mph and above. With no verbal articulation horses and riders instinctively galloped down the steep mountainsides pursuing the eagle as best we could. Inevitably the bird would be atop its prey before our arrival, and as we’d ride up to the hunter and hunted our Kazakh counterpart would quickly dispatch the quarry with a single shot from his rifle. This was done to protect the eagle from losing an eye or broken wing from an errant bite or striking claw. [Photo of eagle with prey]
Daniel’s focus on capturing such scenes with camera and video was unparalleled. At one point in filming a moving target he attempted a hurried dismount to steady his already rolling camera while his horse traversed the mountain at a fast canter. As he did so either his coat or some other paraphernalia caught in the saddle rigging and to my astonishment and uncontrolled laughter he kept his eye on the subject to continue filming with no concern as to where or how his rapid trajectory might end up. Daniel’s feat rivaled any rodeo trick rider and encapsulated the spirit of our adventure, each moment brought new discoveries and we didn’t want to miss a single one.
Kazakh Heritage: [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazakhs ]
The Kazakhs we came to know are a Turkic people, meaning their language is closely related to a large group of Altaic languages of western and central Asia. They are descendants of medieval Mongol tribes, Huns and ancient Iranian nomads who populated the area between Siberia and the Black Sea before the 5th and 13th Centuries AD. it’s important for a Kazakh to know his or her genealogical tree no less than seven generations back. They keep an epic tradition of oral history and have managed to preserve the distant memory of the original founding clans. When they themselves meet one another it’s common for Kazakh men and women to enquire as to which tribe they come from. With old hostilities long forgotten they now consider themselves one nation. Kazakh’s hail from three originating tribes:
The Senior Horde or Hundred is also known as Elder or Great, Uly juz.
The Middle or Central, Orta juz
The Junior or Younger/Lesser, Kishi juz
Kazakh eagle hunter from the Russian Museum of Ethnography, 1910
Kazakh was written with Arabic script during the 19th century, when a number of poets, educated in Islamic schools, led revolts against Russia, and in 1927, a Kazakh nationalist movement sprang up but was soon suppressed and Arabic script was banned and replaced with the Latin alphabet. Soviet interventionists replaced the native Latin alphabet with the Cyrillic alphabet in 1940 but there’s a movement in Kazakhstan today to go back to the Latin script.
For the most part the early ancestors of the Kazakhs believed in Shamanism and Tengrism. It appeared to us, however, that the predominant religion was Islam, which was introduced during the 8th century by Arab missionaries in Central Asia, and by the 14th century the Golden Horde had well established the belief. During Soviet rule only remote areas like our destination were able to hold onto their Islamic faith. Those who descend from the original Muslim soldiers and missionaries command respect in their communities, but pre-Islamic beliefs, the worship of sky, ancestors and fire continue along with Shamanic ways. Several years after this initial visit I had the opportunity to explore the Gobi Desert and witness a Shaman blessing a recently discovered burial site. One has the feeling of being as remotely removed from the western world as can be imagined.
The Warmth and Culture of Nomadic Homes:
During the week’s ride with our hunter hosts we were invited into nomadic homes separated by vast distances. The isolation was mandated by the need for plentiful grazing pastures, thus creating single unit families generating their own source of education, social and cultural stimuli; they were masterfully adept at doing so. I sensed that these distances fostered respectful soft-spoken communication, and not unlike their raptor companions, the Kazakh’s held an abiding respect for one another’s space. Coming from the wide-open and sparsely populated areas of the North West, I was sensitive to their appreciation for elbow room.
Upon our arrival into a home, we were treated as honored guests. A lamb was taken from an outside coral made of piled stones and quickly and humanely harvested in a back section of the living quarters with a clean swipe of a knife under its neck. Immediately the animal bled out into a strategically placed pot from whence the crimson liquid protein would be boiled and placed into the animal’s bladder or stomach for future consumption, nothing was left to waste.
The genuine warmth of their friendship, musical talent and beautifully prepared meal of mutton, fermented mare’s milk and airdried cheese curds was a cultural experience. [Photos and video of the family meal] [Video of music performance]. One of the children, a small boy possibly four-years old, sat on the lap of his grandfather. I noted that the elder did something that I myself enjoyed with my own son just a year or so younger. Cupping his hands over the young one’s head and forming a seal around his nostrils he breathed in deeply, I often did this because the smell of my little one was his very essence. I inquired as to the grandfather’s action and was told that it was how paternal kisses, or a showing of love are communicated; it made perfect sense. Bright eyes and flushed cheeks of smiling children was a testament that an absence of television, mobile phones and computers had no effect on happiness [photo of girls in window and mickey mouse shirt]
Departures and Ongoing Conservation:
All land masses emote a feeling, but none are bolder or more memorable in geography and multiplicity of inspiring cultures as Mongolia. When we completed our objectives and prepared to return home we did so changed by this great land and its indominable presence. It is not a country you leave behind, rather, it becomes a part of you, a milestone in a life of incomparable experiences.
Two months later in January, Bill and Daniel joined me in NY to present our experiences translated into fashion, conservation and adventure coinciding with 2001’s fall fashion week. As gracious as ever, Jalsa Urubshurow, who’d arranged our travels and logistics in Mongolia was on hand. Daniel’s photography was presented in a gallery format and my fashions were worn by live models who mingled with the crowd of fashion editors, the President of Bergdorf Goodman, longtime friend and outspoken Native American activist Russell Means, and a host of good friends. Our most notable guest, however, was a Golden Eagle by the name of One-Eyed Jack, who’d been rescued from a power-line accident that blinded him in one eye. Jack was used to working with crowds and all present were enamored with his regal persona.
The Cornell Club was the perfect venue for our gathering. Tom Cade, the founder of the Peregrine Fund, had been a professor of zoology at Cornell when his pioneering studies in the demise of the Peregrine Falcon not only discovered the cause of the bird’s disappearance but it’s complete return and removal from the endangered species list.
From The Peregrine Fund’s website:
Tom Cade Ph.D.
Founding Chairman and Director
Forty years ago, The Peregrine Fund began its work with a simple mission to save the Peregrine Falcon from extinction. Today, we work around the world, conserving birds of prey faced with habitat loss, poisoning, and other challenges. Peregrine Fund founder Tom Cade remembers the past and looks toward the future.
Dr. Cade’s response to what he sees for the future of The Peregrine Fund?
The Peregrine Fund grew to become much more than anyone originally envisioned. Today it carries out projects on raptor conservation all around the world, as well as continuing two major domestic projects on the endangered California Condor and Aplomado Falcon.
At the end of the last century, the staff, under Bill Burnham’s supervision, undertook a major effort to look into the future and to come up with a plan of operation for the 21st century. It involves greatly expanding our commitment to efforts carried out overseas, particularly in places like Southeast Asia and South America, where many species of endemic raptors are likely to need help in the coming decades.
It also provides for increased training and education of raptor biologists from foreign countries, while remaining vigilant in regard to developing problems in North America, such as those that likely will arise from the effects of climate change. These plans were reviewed several times by our board of directors and approved by them. They remain our best guideline for the future.
No One Visits Mongolia Once:
It is said that no one visits Mongolia only once, a simple statement that I know as of fact. Jalsa Urubshurow became a close friend and in the years that followed he showed me the magnificence of the Gobi Desert, where we found 3,000-year-old petroglyphs of Ibex and their hunters with drawn bows and arrows. And, alone and without guides we explored the Flaming Cliffs rich in dinosaur fossils, from where the NY Museum of Natural History procured its famous eighty-million-year-old Fighting Dinosaurs display, a battle between a Velociraptor and Protoceratops frozen in time. There are other chapters I have yet to learn and experience, and via this site I intend for others to join me.
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