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Falconry tradition soars back

Chicago Tribune, online edition

ANDYKOZHAR BATYR, Kazakhstan—Under a cloudless sky on the Kazakh steppe, a gray hare scampers over the snow-dusted scrub, about two football fields away from a young hunter in green camouflage and the leather-blinkered golden eagle he supports on a thick, black falconer's gauntlet.

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The hunter gently pulls off the eagle's hood. The bird's gaze swivels from one end of the horizon to the other, stopping momentarily to spy the hare in the distance. With a shout, "Hah!" he releases the eagle. It ascends with two flaps of its 5-foot wingspan, then swoops downward in a blink-of-an-eye glide that ends with the bird's 3-inch talons clutching the rabbit's head.

Later, at the top of a lone hillock, the hunter, Ablykhan Zbasov, explains what tethers him to a sport practiced by his forefathers 3,000 years ago, a casualty of the Soviet era now gradually making its way back to the Kazakh plains.

"When you hunt with a rifle, this is not interesting," says Zbasov, 30, his boyish face reddened by a bracing steppe wind. "But when you have the bird and your horse with you, you feel united with nature. It's really beautiful. You never forget the bird's grasp of your wrist, how powerful it is."

Zbasov and the rest of Kazakhstan's small but avid falconry community want their countrymen to know that feeling. At a time when an oil boom is endowing Kazakhstan with skyscrapers, SUVs and a budding middle class, Kazakh falconers are trying to revive their sport's stature as a pillar of national identity.

Through seven decades of Soviet rule, Kazakhstan's love affair with falconry flickered as expressions of ethnic identity were suppressed, but it never died out. Today in southeastern Kazakhstan, Kazakhs from other regions of the Central Asian nation have begun signing up for falconry courses at the Zhalair Shora Falconry Center and Museum in Nura, a small village at the foot of the Tien Shan Mountains.

"We need to keep the tradition alive, for our culture and our country," says museum Director Dinara Cherepayeva. "Our children need to learn the sport to save it."

Like other pastimes associated with nobility, falconry has a lore and history that mold its mystique. Though no one knows exactly when the use of birds of prey for hunting began, the International Association for Falconry states that historians trace the sport's roots as far back as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, to kings who ruled ancient Persia.

By 1000 B.C., falconry was established on the plains of Central Asia, where Mongolia's ruling khans kept small brigades of raptors and thousands of falconers to attend to the birds. Via the Silk Road, the sport made its way westward to medieval Europe, quickly becoming a badge of wealth and power. Diplomats exchanged them as gifts. In England in the 1600s, an aristocrat's rank was defined by the raptor he was permitted to fly. The king could hunt with a gyrfalcon, but an earl was confined to the peregrine. But perhaps falconry's most intriguing element is the improbable bond that emerges between a falconer and his raptor. Perched outside the front door of Zbasov's small brick hut in Andykozhar Batyr is one of his golden eagles, Konyrshker, Kazakh for "Brown Pilot." Zbasov strokes Konyrshker's neck as if he were one of the handful of dogs Zbasov keeps in his back yard. He gently runs his fingers through Konyrshker's tail feathers, looking for imperfections that can affect flight.

Zbasov has been hunting with Konyrshker for seven years. Never once has the golden eagle tried to escape.

"You've always got to be very gentle with the bird," Zbasov says, feasting on a platter of boiled lamb with friends after a morning hunt. "You must always calm him. Even if he pecks you, you must stay calm. Then the bird begins to trust you. This takes months, maybe years.

"You also have to understand the bird, his mood changes. Sometimes he's capricious. Sometimes he's nervous. You must always be tuned to his mind, his wishes."

The golden eagle, the most common bird of prey used by falconers in Kazakhstan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, is one of nature's best hunting machines. With five times the amount of light-sensitive cells in its retina as a human being has, a golden eagle can pinpoint prey up to 2 miles away. Its dive toward its prey can reach speeds of 120 m.p.h. On the Kazakh plain and woodland, eagles feed mostly on hares, marmots and foxes, though they have been known to prey on wolves.

Harnessing the eagle's predatory superiority is the steppe's supreme test of patience, Zbasov says. He stretches out his hands to reveal a patchwork of scars from pecks and talon gouges. The last wound came that morning, when Konyrshker pecked a hole in his knuckle as he tried to wrest the rabbit from the bird's talons.

The first golden eagle he trained was an adult that he kept inside his house for 20 sleepless nights, until the bird grew accustomed to his presence. That bird was an exception, Zbasov says; usually he trains his birds from the time they are chicks, building trust by feeding them from his hand. The birds then learn to fly to him for feedings from increasing distances that eventually reach 150 yards.

Once Zbasov builds a relationship with the bird, he trains it to hunt for him, first with a fox skin dragged by an assistant on horseback then with live rabbits. With the eagle fully trained, Zbasov takes it on fox hunts, usually relying on his set of Russian wolfhounds to flush the game out before releasing the eagle for the kill.

"When I release an eagle into the wild, I don't worry about it flying away," Zbasov says. "It follows me all of the time. If a falconer's skills are poor, the bird won't come back. But among our falconers, that never happens." What began 10 years ago as an alternative to hunting with rifles has now become an all-consuming passion for Zbasov, who stopped drinking and smoking because "the birds didn't like it." He has turned the sport into his livelihood; his family's sole income derives from hunts and exhibitions he arranges for tourists at a nearby resort.

His two sons, Shingiz, 10, and Timurlan, 7, have already shown a desire to learn the sport, he says. When they reach age 13, Kazakhstan's minimum age to obtain a falconry license, Zbasov will begin their training.

"The instinct of loving birds of prey is in our blood," Zbasov says. "Once that instinct is awakened, a person has a chance of becoming a falconer. Not everyone can do it, but everyone can dream."