The Peregrine Fund Home
Sign In
The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
November 1999
Bill Burnham — in Mongolia Project    ShareDay One - Rob’s wife Tara, with 10-month-old Will, who had an ear infection and was running a fever, held in her arms and four-year-old Jackson tugging at her pant leg, waved a smiling goodbye as Rob and I bolted down the jet way. Although sad to see him leave, having the whirlwind of activities preceding his departure over was probably also a relief to her. We were the last two on board and somewhat sheepishly hurried to our seats as the plane door was closed by an understandably grumpy flight attendant. The adventure finally had begun!

Robert Comstock is a long-time Board member of The Peregrine Fund and had been talking about going to Mongolia ever since I first met him some 15 years ago. His late father was a patriarch of philanthropy in the Boise, Idaho community and had brought the Comstock family to visit the World Center for Birds of Prey even while we were still under construction. Rob is president of his own company, The Robert Comstock Company, and is a designer of acclaim and known for his outer garment wear which can be found for sale at the best stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. Beyond Tara’s more than full-time job as a homemaker, mother, and wife, she is a top fashion model and her picture can be regularly seen advertising Chanel Allure, to include internationally. I have even seen her photograph in a store in the Philippines. If not for the children, Rob could not have left Tara at home as she loves wildlife and the out-of-doors. She and Rob both participated in our research in north Greenland soon after they were married. Rob has helped support our work there as well as The Peregrine Fund's project in Madagascar.

Rob and Thinsulate Ultra Insulation were funding this trip and Rob had further committed to supporting conservation actions there if our trip should identify Mongolian priorities which match those of The Peregrine Fund. To help make the trip a special event, Rob had come up with Comstock coats with Thinsulate Ultra Insulation to help keep us warm. It worked!

To insure maximum results from visiting a new country, we needed help from within. We were fortunate to know Sheldon Severinghaus who has lived there for six years. He is a Visiting Scholar for the Center for International Studies, Mongolian Academy of Science and Institute for East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley and is writing a book on the country's transition from communism, although his research for his Ph.D. at Cornell University was on pheasants in Taiwan. He is married to Peregrine Fund Board member Lucia Severinghaus who is a Chinese scientist on Taiwan. Lucia also received her Ph.D. from Cornell. Her specialty is birds and she has a long-term project underway on a scops owl which lives only on one island of Taiwan.

Early in our planning Shel put us in touch with Nomadic Expeditions Mongolia, suggesting that we use them to help with the logistics in western Mongolia. One purpose of our trip was to visit the area of western Mongolia where Kazacks still use Golden Eagles for hunting. Particularly since our visit there was to be in November when temperatures were likely to be near zero Fahrenheit, we needed knowledgeable assistance. Turned out Shel’s recommendation was a good one; Nomadic Expeditions was excellent.

Like Rob’s, my interest in Mongolia was long standing, but probably for a somewhat different reason. Decades ago I had seen a photograph in Life Magazine of a Kazack on horseback with a Golden Eagle. Being young and with an interest in birds of prey and falconry, that is something I did not forget. Having trained a Golden Eagle myself, I was intrigued by this culture that had hunted with eagles for probably a thousand years or more. People with such a long history with eagles, I thought, must have unique insight to the species and its use for hunting. In a few days I was going to get the chance to find out.

Day Two - We flew from Boise to Seattle, then on to Seoul, Korea where we had to overnight. Passing the date line, time literally flew and we landed in Korea in the late evening. A business associate of Rob's, Jane Bang, was waiting for us when we cleared customs. With her was Daniel O'Neill who had also just arrived. Daniel was hired by Rob to film the trip. Rob hopes to use the photos and footage in a fashion show. Daniel, in his mid-30s, 6 foot 4 inches, and with shoulder-length blond hair is a well-known Manhattan-based fashion photographer who has filmed the top models and spent considerable time abroad. Despite his extensive experience, this was his first venture into the world of nature conservation and birds of prey. He came loaded for bear with half a dozen cameras, tripod, and hundreds of rolls of film which he worried over even before they were exposed. Afterwards he did not want to let them from his sight for a moment.

Day Three - Just before noon we headed to the airport, arriving well ahead of the flight. We checked our baggage with Rob paying the overweight charge (Daniel!). Daniel was probably not totally to blame as we all had cold weather gear as well as good clothes for meetings in the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (UB), which is also sometimes written as Ulan Bator. We were flying MIAT Mongolia Airlines and upon arrival at the ticket counter we were greeted by their very friendly Mongolian and the Seoul General Manager, Galbadrakh, who considered it his job to ensure all passengers were well taken care of and happy. Arriving at the departure gate an hour ahead of flight time, we discovered the flight was delayed. No problem, we had all night. Wrong! After first boarding, then moving out and waiting in line for take off, the plane turned around and taxied back to the gate. The PA system was so scratchy and the flight attendant's voice so soft we could not at first determine the problem, but eventually were told in person that the delay had prevented our arrival at UB before dark and we must now wait until tomorrow. The UB airport can only handle daylight landings. Off we went, back to Seoul and a hotel, but this time without our luggage which would remain in the belly of the airplane, for a short night's sleep and another try.

Day Four - We left for the airport at 5:30 am to ensure we were at the gate well before the 8:00 scheduled departure. Suffering from jet leg, getting away early was not a problem as we were all waking up nice and early—about 3:00! Most people’s sleep patterns change for new times zones at the rate of about one hour a day. The time difference between Idaho and Korea was 14 hours so we had a ways to go before a good night's sleep. Leaving the hotel we could see fog in the headlights and wondered about Mongolian Air Flight 737's on-time departure. We left at 10:30 and three hours later landed at the UB international airport. Shel and Badral, Vice President, Nomadic Expeditions Mongolia, met us in the baggage area and whisked us through immigration and customs and into a waiting van. Badral was not only effective and efficient, his English was better than mine. As we left, I noticed sheep and cattle grazing around the airport sign and within circles made by the new air terminal’s entrance and departure roads.

The drive from the airport proved that, as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, "We were not in Kansas anymore," or in Idaho or anywhere else I have visited. The first impression was that we had stepped back in time to the 1950s. Approaching the city we paralleled a frozen river with a few bare-branched bushes along its banks, but otherwise almost no visible vegetation existed below the hillsides some miles away which were partly covered in pine forests. Snow only occurred in the low spots and in other locations where it had drifted. Nearby were clusters of gers where many families lived in the Mongolian traditional tent structure. Gers are circular, domed, wood framed, and insulated tents, also know as yurts in other countries. They have a wood/dung/coal-burning cooking and heating stove in the center. We would learn to greatly appreciate these structures in days to come when the wind howled, snow blew, and the temperature dropped to the single digits and below.

Badral had chosen the Ulaanbaatar Hotel for our stay. It is a hotel built during Communist times and the lone statue of Lenin in UB is a short distance from the entrance. The hotel is similar in design and style to those built in other Communist countries. It and all buildings in the city are heated with a common steam and hot water system produced at the electrical power plant. Rooms have no temperature controls and the shower and sink water are whatever the water temperature may be at the moment you use it, which varies from lukewarm to hot. The service and attention by staff to guests of the hotel is excellent.

Our delayed arrival had already caused us to miss morning meetings and the luncheon with environmental leaders, both of which Shel had scheduled for us. Now we had to hurry to make the meeting with the U.S. Embassy staff. From there it was back to the hotel to meet with Mongolia’s senior ornithologist, Dr. Ayurzanin Bold. The formalities of the meeting with Dr. Bold were soon dispensed with as Dr. Bold's humor and friendly disposition and our common interest in birds, science, and conservation transcended our language barriers and cultures. After speaking for over an hour we agreed to meet again upon our return from western Mongolia. Saying goodbye, there was then time to unpack quickly before a dinner with Mongolia’s leading fashion designers, manufacturers, models, and aspiring designers at Cafe de France. Appropriate name for such a gathering. Most present spoke excellent English and for those who did not, Badral provided almost simultaneous translation. The guy is amazing. The group greatly enjoyed Rob and Daniel while Shel functioned as the grand host and orchestrated a great evening. Before long, however, jet lag was dragging my eyelids together and turning my mind to mush. I do not know how Rob remained engaging through the entire evening, having conversations with several people at once and involving all around the table and making each feel special. Just before my head was about to fall into the plate, we said goodnight.

Day Five - UB time was one hour earlier than Seoul so no problem waking—3:00 am again. Ugh. We were off to the airport by 6:30 with Badral and Chimedsteren, which he shortened to Chimed. Chimed was to be our camp manager and cook. He also was educated in archeology and geology, spoke and read Mongolian and Russian, and had the English language in hand. Have you ever heard the question, "What do you call someone who speaks only one language?" The answer is American. This is a deficiency of many of us in the United States, but particularly me. My college Spanish language teacher offered to give me a passing grade for his class only if I promised never to take language classes from him again.

It was a "balmy" morning with temperatures probably in the 20s Fahrenheit with light snow. Check-in for the flight was quick and we left on time. The plane was a well-used, rather rustic twin engine turboprop with probably 60 seats. The flight was full, which included a few passengers sitting on the floor in the baggage area. Daniel’s three large cameras and film bags as carry-on did not cause a problem as most everyone else had a stack of things as well. Although the center isle was clear, every other available space was full of stuff, including many laps, such as mine. We put Daniel's bags under our feet and other carry-ons in our laps. Evidently the flight safety demonstration must have been brief as I missed it, or maybe it was combined with the flight attendant passing out pieces of candy. Whatever the case, we went over the hill and mountains to the town of Ulgii located in the Alti county of western Mongolia.

Even before the flight began, Daniel had his digital video camera out capturing the moments. Its viewing screen was a favorite of most everyone who noticed, and particularly the kids who were crawling over seat backs to see. Flying only a couple of thousand feet high, we had a great view of the snowy landscape. Two hours into our flight the plane lowered its wheels and we touched down on a frozen rocky landing strip in a beautiful valley containing the town of Tosontsengel, the capital of Zabhan county. It was not balmy in Tosontsengel with the temperature no doubt well below zero. Airport rest rooms were a couple of outhouses across the runway, or for men, a fence line somewhat closer by. After the break and some fuel for the airplane, the passengers gradually wandered back and loaded themselves onto the plane in preparation for the pilots who seemed to enjoy keeping everyone waiting, then making a grand entrance while shouting orders.

After a very bumpy drive to the end of the runway the engines were gunned and we banged and bounced our way into the air. Another two hours in the air had us landing on Uglii’s gravel and rock runway. While we waited near the plane, the bags were off-loaded onto a truck and brought to the waiting bundled-up passengers. While Rob, Shel, Badral, and Chimed waited, Daniel continued to try and catch everything on film. Hardly an interesting face or scene escaped unrecorded. I have never seen a more energetic and dedicated photographer. He also has an easy smile and a way with people who most readily agreed to allow him to photograph them. Many Mongols have striking faces formed not just by genes, but climate and time.

Badral had three "Russian jeeps" waiting for us and our baggage. The jeeps were unattractive by Western standards and well broken-in, but also well-kept and clean. Seats were covered with rugs and heavy durable warm materials, and the head liners were well cushioned and insulated. I later found the reason for the cushioning in the head liner (human heads!) since seat belts and shock absorbers seemed unknown. Two additional Nomadic Expedition organizers were waiting along with the drivers. Piling in, there was no room to spare with the backs and seats full of gear and us. Hanging from the mirror were owl feathers to bring us good fortune and ward off evil. We immediately went to the nearby home of one of the local men for lunch and our first of many vodka toasts. In the United States I had not seen vodka bottles with snap off tops, nor in a six pack. I suspect the vodka doubles as gasoline additive to boost octane and to thin oil-based paints. It definitely cleans the pallet and throat.

Badral said that even for him, going to Uglii is like traveling to a different country. The primary language is Kazack, not Mongolian, the principle religion is Muslim, and mosques appear in towns. Even the dress and facial features of the people are different.

Finishing lunch, and on the way out of town, we stopped by the local market to buy a few last minute items, like maybe a camel or something. The market was out-of-doors, as is the one in UB. The Uglii market covers an acre or more and has most anything you want, and a lot you do not want is sold there. Near the entrance were stacks of animal hides for sale and a couple of pack camels were tied off on one side. The camel in Mongolia is the two hump variety (Bactrian Camels). Also near the market entrance were pool and snooker tables set on sawhorses and at which men played enthusiastically despite the low temperatures. Daniel took pictures while we looked about, finding nothing additional we needed for the trip.

Back in the vehicles, we left town, passing into the countryside and passing regularly spaced herds of sheep, goats, and yak. Most herds were attended by a Mongolian sitting on horseback or on foot. Human dwellings were also spaced out, but less noticeable as they were kept off of prime grazing areas and usually placed out of the wind up small side valleys or against hills. More mudded-over log houses existed than gers. The roads were rutted and very rough, some covered in gravel or rock and others just dirt. Plumes of dust stretched for miles behind us as our drivers drove with haste and determination. Wood bridges sat upon concrete foundations over streams and small rivers which no doubt occasionally became raging torrents of muddy water. Many bridge planks were gone and holes existed the size of truck wheels. Scattered along planks that remained were spikes protruding up to puncture tires. The drivers were obviously used to driving over them and picked their route carefully.

As we drove there was a new sight and something interesting around every bend or hill. Each event resulted in Daniel howling for the driver to stop while he banged on his shoulder and drew his index finger across his throat so he could get out for a photograph. The most memorable scene for me was a herd of twenty or so camels grazing across the valley floor. Although the landscape could have been Idaho, the camels were definitely not. After about four hours, and with daylight fading, we turned onto even a lesser-used road/trail and, rounding a knoll, spotted three gers set in the middle of a large flat which was surrounded by wind-swept hills. A herd of horses grazed a few hundred yards away. We were home.

Stopping the jeeps, we poured out, relieved and excited. Rob and Daniel took one ger and Shel and I a second, while Bardral and Chimed occupied the third along with two camp helpers. Their ger was also the cooking ger where we gathered to eat and talk. The beds were set along the sides and the center left open except for the stove. No sooner had we arrived than so did four horsemen, all carrying Golden Eagles on their arms. Whether intended or not, they made a grand scene galloping into camp with the eagle’s wings extended to help keep balance and catching a strong evening breeze blowing into their hooded faces. Each man was dressed in traditional knee-length black coats with silver belts and fox skin and silk hats. The eagle gauntlets extended to the elbow and were made of heavy leather with thick felt lining for warmth. The men’s arms were supported by a wooden V-shaped yoke with its single leg pressed against the saddle. Was today a few weeks from the 21st century or several millennia ago? Was one of these men Timijin, destined to be known as Chinggis Khan (also known as Genghis Khan)? Who could tell? None spoke English or Mongolian, but instead Kazack, and so our words and theirs passed between Badral (English and Mongolian) and one of the guides (Mongolian and Kazack) who we acquired in Uglii. The hunters each took turns releasing their eagles, then having them fly to their fists as they sat horseback. Eagles then flew to a dead rabbit lure dragged across the ground by a running boy. One at a time the falconer retrieved his eagle from the lure, feeding it a rabbit leg for its effort. By now it was near dusk and we agreed to see them in the morning.

Day Six - Our fire tender entered the ger at six, without knocking, to stir the coals to life in the iron stove. The night had been long, cold, and very windy with the stove pipe banging against the roof crown for hours. Each time I arose to leave the tent I wished I had consumed less tea before going to bed. The two sleeping bags each of us were within were necessary to stay warm. By 7:00 the ger temperature was much warmer and Chimed dropped in with a pot of warm wash water. There are certain behaviors which go along with ger living, one of which is you do not knock on the door but just yell out before entry. In a family ger, men always stay to the left side and women to the right coming through the door. The place of honor is toward the back of the ger, away from the door. Other considerations are to take at least a sip or nibble of food and drink offered, accept food and drink with your right hand with the left hand supporting the elbow, pick up anything with an open hand and your palm facing upwards, don't write in red ink, point your knife at anyone, walk in front of an old person, or touch other people's hats.

The wind was strong, too strong, I was certain, even to fly eagles. I know if they were my birds I would not release them in these winds as odds are their next stop would be many miles away. The hunters confirmed this belief and we agreed to use today for discussions Rob, Shel, and I wanted to have with the hunters. A nearby family invited us to their one-room home which had windows and was twice the size or more of our gers. An easier place to talk considering there were four of them plus four of us, Badral, and a translator.

Our host's house was made of smallish diameter logs which had a thick covering of adobe-type mud on the outside and a dirt roof. A low cooking and heating stove was near the room's center and there was no electricity, phone, running water, or sewer. The dirt floor was covered with vinyl and rugs. Beds lined the walls and most of their possessions were at the far end of the house, opposite of the entrance, as is traditional in a ger. A window on the sunny side of the house let in light and, along with colorful handmade tapestries on the walls, made the interior seem bright and inviting. Our host, Bazarhan, had also hunted with eagles but does not have one presently. He does have six children, four girls and two boys, and tragically his wife died during the past year. He is considered well-to-do with 500 sheep and goats and about 200 head of cattle and horses. A well-used Russian motorcycle sits outside for long trips. It is faster than a horse or camel and he has no car or truck.

We are welcomed into their home and sit on the floor or on small, low benches. After the two-handed handshake, the traditional spread of bread, cheese, and sweets is placed on the floor and we are given bowls of boiled milk tea with salt (and possibly other additives) to drink. While partaking of the food and milk we are introduced to the falconers. Kumarhan is the oldest at 75 years and has over 50 years of experience hunting with eagles. He has trained over 25 eagles. The others are his students, the most senior of which is Ignaty who has hunted for 10 years and trained four eagles. Then there is Umurzalkh who has eight years of experience with five eagles, and Dalarhan with six years and two eagles. Our host did not tell us of his experience but it was my impression he had the least.

Rob and I thanked them for seeing us and for agreeing to share their knowledge. I explained my experience and showed The Peregrine Fund annual report and the falconry photographs in my book, A Fascination with Falcons. I spoke about the raptors in each photo and other related topics. The Harpy Eagle and Philippine Eagle stirred the most excitement, with them speaking rapidly among themselves and asking questions as fast as the interpreters could speak. We then began to discuss their experiences. Kumarhan said in his best year he had caught 25 foxes with one of his eagles. We asked why he had so many different eagles over the years. He explained that once an eagle is over 10 years old it is not a good hunter and is released back to the wild, plus some just fly away while others are killed or injured catching a fox or even a wolf. Sometimes they get an eagle they just do not like so they release it and capture another. They do not like nestlings or first-year birds as they are hard to take off of kills and may attack children. Two- or three-year-old birds are best. These statements are consistent with my experience; as raptors get older and more experienced they are less likely to capture large quarry. Also, nesting or young eagles can be aggressive toward the falconer when on a kill, lure, or even on the fist. The Golden Eagle I trained and hunted with many years ago would leave a rabbit it caught to come after me when I approached to pick it up. It would also fly at my much younger brother and would have no doubt bound to him with taloned feet if he were close enough or the eagle leash had been longer.

Shel asked if wild eagles are common and they answered yes. He then asked if they are more common today than 50 years ago. Kumarhan explained that 50 years ago each Kazack family had an eagle, but now few families have them. The number of eagles in the wild is increasing because fewer are being captured. Shel then asked if they sell their eagles and he said never. He then asked about the importance of eagles in culture and use in songs, stories, and poems, and are there any taboos or religious implications about eagles. They said they are mentioned in some songs, stories, and poems, but none are just about eagles and there are no taboos. Later in the day, however, when songs were begun and through further discussions, the eagle did seem to have a greater cultural significance than explained. Interestingly, later, while the Kazacks played their string instruments and sang, an eagle sat quietly behind them on its perch, preening and straightening its feathers as if it had always been her place. And maybe it has, and hopefully it will continue to be so.

They do not name their eagles but refer to them with terms reflecting how old they were when captured and accomplishments in hunting. Horses are not named either. I did not ask if that was the case for their dogs or other animals.

Rob also had many questions but his were mostly related to their clothing and material used. He asked about the reasons for certain designs and the length of coats and clothes. Which material they found best. Were these materials and clothing traditional or would they use others if available and better. The questions stirred a lengthy discussion with the final answer being, they are a practical people and of course, if they had something better it would be used.

After lunch, as the formal discussions quieted to friendly small talk and the children warmed to us strangers and moved closer to listen, another guest arrived. He was the local medical doctor but he brought musical, not medical instruments. A couple of guitars—one traditional with only two strings and a well-used standard four-string guitar. Soon the cords were resounding and he sang beautifully into the warm afternoon sun radiating through the southern windows. Our new Kazack friends were enthusiastic about music and most joined in singing, and even playing. Bazarhan's daughters sat nestled, holding their little sister and harmonizing with the songs they had no doubt shared with their late mother. The words—we knew none. But it mattered not as the meanings were clear and the melodies flowed through our minds and souls. What a day.

Day Seven - Still waking early, I drew my book and flashlight into my sleeping bag and put my head under the flap so I could read and not disturb Shel. Our human alarm clock had not yet arrived to freshen the fire. Although still windy, someone had fixed our rattling stove pipe and the ger was quiet in the cold darkness of the early morning hours.

Whatever it is, breakfast for me is always a highlight for the day. Ger camp saw a variety of foods and drinks with Chimed endeavoring to whip up a daily special. He is a great cook. We planned to spend today hunting hare and fox with the Kazacks so a few extra calories were appropriate with the temperatures in the single digits or below with a stiff breeze blowing. Thank goodness for Thinsulate!

After donning long underwear, coats, and hats, we found our wrangler, Mongolia-style, had several horses saddled and waiting. The Mongolian horses are diminutive but stoutly built and with a matching stubborn personality. The long hair from their tails reaches the ground, and manes are well down their thick necks and bodies. They are small enough that at first I felt almost guilty for getting on the back of mine. The saddles are wood or steel-framed with a pillow tied to the low spot. My backside just fit between the two fairly high steel half circles extending beyond the pillow in front and back. I could tell right off to beware of moving forward or backward in the saddle as a painful result would occur. Most saddles had no leather extending down the sides, just a piece of canvas. Stirrups, like the saddle, were based on a lesser-is-better design with narrow rawhide strips attached to a thin D ring for each rider's feet. Bridles were of similar fashion with short reins tied above the horse's back so they could not fall to the ground. Mongols do not use spurs, but instead whips, to stimulate horse progress.

Of the four of us, Shel was the most intelligent and chose to pass on horses and ride in the jeep. Rob loves horses, as does his wife who he kept wishing was along (if so, I would have certainly given her mine). Daniel is game for anything so there was no hesitation. Horses and I have a long, rocky history and I did choose to name mine just so it understood my true feelings. It was called "Alpo," but I thought Friskies would be equally appropriate. To get us started our Mongolian wrangler felt he had to shove the dudes onto their horses, which for me added insult to the probable injuries that were coming. Daniel tried hanging a camera bag around his neck and two at his sides so he could quickly access cameras and film while Rob rode and handily carried the tripod. I just hung on.

The Mongolian hunters headed to the high ground so their eagles would have vantage points from which to scan the hills and valleys for prey. We were to ride below them to flush the potential quarry. Heigh-ho, Alpo! Rob rode smoothly, I bounced along, and Daniel was all over the place trying to be a photographer and horseman simultaneously. He could probably become a trick rider. After a couple of hours Daniel had devised a system which seemed to be working and involved having the wrangler periodically lead his horse while he was shooting. Rob was having a great time and I was leading Alpo and asking about the availability of a motorcycle. To the hunters' despair we were not flushing much game. Dropping down off the second long set of hills and ridges, they joined us for a short ride to a nearby family's home for lunch. Thank goodness.

The home of this family was more modest in size and condition than yesterday's, but they were equally friendly and happy to have guests from America. After the traditional drink and food, Chimed helped with a meal of hot soup and mutton. Boiled mutton is the staple diet in Mongolia. After lunch, as he did yesterday, Daniel shot a family portrait to send back to our hosts. Photographs are prized possessions for the local people who have no cameras or opportunities to obtain pictures, and particularly of children and their elders. We were honored today as the 70-year-old grandmother was visiting and wearing her traditional head cover which extends down beyond the shoulders.

Most of these winter homesteads in this area seem to be log and mud houses with nearby rock corrals, and even a small rock hay yard. Ice is hauled from the river and melted for drinking water. The livestock eat snow for much of their water. For stoves, adults and children collect manure from their herds. As it is collected it is sorted and piled based on age because of different properties when being burnt.

Now we were back on the horses for our continued search for eagle quarry. The hunters systematically move along the ridges so there is usually one eagle at a vantage point unhooded and watching for quarry at all times. Once the eagle spots a fox or hare it is released and flaps and glides down the hill to seize its prey before it escapes underground. Golden Eagles have large feet and kill their prey with a very crushing grip and needle sharp talons. There were two hares seen during the day's hunt and the second was caught. Although the hunt was less productive than hoped, there was nothing disappointing about the day (other than my equestrian skills!).

Day Eight - Another early morning but I am waking a little later each day. This was to be the best day yet for weather, although the temperatures remained cold. The breeze was slight in the valley but no doubt harder on the ridge tops. With a day of riding behind us and with Rob and Daniel showing considerable skills, we traveled with the hunters, working along hill tops and ridges. Never a great bystander and preferring to have my own eagle on my fist and arm, I still immensely enjoyed moving along the high ground looking at the spectacular scenery. The treeless, wind-swept hills and snow-covered mountains are breathtakingly beautiful in their austerity.

The eagles were well-maned (tamed) and conditioned to this method of hunting. The hoods were easily slipped on and off their heads and they rode easily on the hunters' arms and fists. The equipment used with the eagles and methods for their management and hunting in Mongolia are similar to the time-tested methods used across continents and centuries. The hood, used as blinders are for a horse, keeps the eagles calm and is constructed of leather. The Mongolian hood differs from European and Western hood design in that it does not have leather draw straps to open and close (tighten and loosen) the back for ease in placing on or removing from the raptor's head, but instead it fits snugly and is forced on and off. The jesses attached around the eagle's legs, and what falconers/hunters hold on to, are leather, but with an attachment method to the leg which I had not seen previously. The long ends of the jess, which the falconer holds, have a small metal ring through which the leash is slipped. This arrangement allows the falconer to hold the jesses and leash to ensure the eagle does not fly from the arm but allows for the leash to be quickly removed so the eagle can be slipped after game. The Kazacks have designed an unusual and ingenious protective leather cover, or half glove, that protects the upper surface of the eagle's feet. Toes and lower legs and feet are vulnerable to being bitten by a fox and the device provides some protection.

Today was a true test for the horses and riders as we rode through loose rock and across side hills that sloped steeply for hundreds of feet to valleys below. The Mongolian horse, although not fast and with an awkward gait, is surefooted and strong. After a day's travel over difficult terrain, there was no obvious fatigue, although that was not true for this rider. Like yesterday, we again located no fox although wolf tracks were seen and they had evidently passed through the area during the night.

We were invited today to yet another family's home and asked to stop by in the morning before the hunt began. Arriving at the house we were told the family was so honored by the visit from these unusual foreigners that they wished to kill and prepare a sheep to eat. International visitors are rare and we were probably the first to be seen by some family members. After the traditional drink and food, a sheep was brought into the house and after a prayer to Allah (most of the Kazacks are Muslim) it was tied and quietly and quickly killed with a severed carotid artery. As it was beginning to be skinned and prepared for cooking, we left for the day's hunt. A point of interest—the senior member of this household was age 70 and rightfully very proud of his accomplishments which he had previously listed. He had received many awards and medals from the Communist party for excellence as a livestock producer. Despite that he gave the honor of the prayer to our senior hunter who was 75. Elders are held in high esteem and respected by the Kazack people.

Returning late in the day, we entered the house filled with good smells from the cooking mutton and noodles being prepared for all present to eat. After we had shed our coats and hats and gathered in small groups on the floor, pans of mutton and noodles were set out to be eaten with fingers and washed down with bowls of boiled milk. Stories about the day and laughter followed. With dark fast approaching, we said goodbye to our host family and the hunters who had shared these days and experiences with us.

To each of the families we had brought small gifts of M&M candies and ballpoint pens for the children, plus clothing or items of practical value we could spare for the adults. By the time we departed our Comstock/Thinsulate coats were given away, plus gloves, and even Rob's insulated boots. For the hunters/falconers I had brought handmade high quality stainless steel swivels for use with their eagles. The swivel attaches the jesses to the leash when the eagles are tied to a perch and helps keep them from tangling. To the oldest hunter, Kumarhan, I also gave my book I had showed them during our stay. All the gifts seemed greatly appreciated and enjoyed.

Our last evening at ger camp was concluded with a short-lived blizzard which came roaring down from the Alti Mountains and strong winds that lasted most of the night. Because of the winds the gers were re-secured toward midnight. We rose from our bags about 4:00 am expecting to find the ground covered in snow, but it had blown clean and snow continued to occur only in low spots and drifts. By 6:00 am our drivers and jeeps had returned and we packed and were ready to go. Saying goodbye to the camp helpers, we headed into the dark.

The return trip to Uglii was quicker as Daniel could not take photographs in the dark. By now he had exposed almost two hundred rolls of film and recorded a dozen hours of digital video tape with sound. Unless asleep, there was hardly a moment when he was not filming. Not necessarily filming while standing, but when sitting, laying, and crawling about the floor or ground to get the best angles and shots. All people, but particularly the kids, found him comical when all six plus feet of him suddenly flopped on the ground while continuing to snap photographs. At one point during a flurry of shooting with his large format cameras while trying to load film with fingers numb with cold, he cursed that he would give $5,000 right now for someone who could load film. To keep up with him it would have probably taken two people or more. Rob and I were a lot better at holding cameras and handing out film than trying to get it in and out of cameras.

Through all the days' activities and experiences sitting, standing, walking, or on horseback, Rob was like an intellectual sponge soaking up the culture, country, and information. I doubt he missed a drop of what there was to offer. Through his eyes as a designer and artist, I cannot even imagine his perception and the further results that may occur because of the experiences.

We greatly benefitted from having Shel with us throughout these days and for the remainder of our time in Mongolia. His background, including years in Mongolia, provided insight and knowledge gained which we might otherwise not have had. An amazing fact about Shel is that while the rest of us, including the Mongolians, were bundled up and sometimes shivering, Shel wore tennis shoes, light-weight pants, and a sporty cap with no ear flaps. Looking at him it could have been a mild fall day, not Mongolian winter. He said he did not put on heavier clothes until it got cold!

Arriving in Ulgii, we checked our luggage and waited for the plane which arrived more-or-less on time. Boarding, all seats were filled and a great deal of luggage was piled in the back. What we observed on the trip here must be the standard entrance for MIAT pilots as they arrived only after loading. We then taxied to the end of the runway and bounced into the frigid air with engines roaring. Two hours later, going on what seemed much more, we again landed in Tosontsengel and the passengers poured off to stretch and deal with personal needs while the plane was fueled. As before, and without a signal, the passengers eventually re-boarded the aircraft and began the wait for the pilots. Again all the seats were full, but people kept coming. Some went into the cockpit area and others gathered near the back of the aircraft with the luggage. How many extra passengers were crammed onto the plane we cannot say, but lots. Finally, many minutes later, the pilots took their bows passing through the cabin and elbowed their way into their seats. The cold engines coughed and roared with smoke pouring out the exhaust ports, and the frozen, out-of-round tires ker-thumped along the ground and over the rocks until airborne and pulled up into the wing wells. After what seemed an even longer two-hour flight than before, we touched down at UB near dark with runway lights showing.

Once we had checked into the hotel, to our great appreciation the shower water was hot and endless. Better smelling and with fresh clothes, Rob, Daniel, and I walked across the street for an Italian dinner and a humorous evening reviewing the past days' events. Badral and Shel were probably very glad to be shed of our company and to rest up for the last two days of activities.

Day Nine - This is our first time to see more of the city than the road to the airport. Badral took us to a department store and the town market. The market was amazing with everything—furniture, bathroom fixtures, clothes, hardware, and ger supplies—and all being sold in the out-of-doors at below zero temperatures, but with hot sales and negotiable prices! Shel passed on this experience, having been there many times before. Daniel continued to film and I carried cameras while, with Badral's help, Rob found a couple of Soviet medals he bought. One is a "mother's medal" which he got for Tara, who certainly deserves it. It was a special medal awarded from the Soviet government for those women who had six children, but I think Rob was awarding it for other reasons, or else maybe he is planning ahead.

In the afternoon we went to the Mongolian Academy of Sciences to meet with Drs. Bold and Boldbaatar. Like Dr. Bold, Dr. Boldbaatar's specialty is birds and recently he has been researching Saker Falcons. In preparation for our visit they had laid out their scientific museum collection of birds of prey from Mongolia. There were several dozens of prepared specimens from probably 15 to 20 different species. Also present this afternoon was Nyambayar Batbayar who I had met in Japan at the first Asian raptor meetings in December 1998. At those meetings he gave a presentation on the Golden Eagle in Mongolian and shared a number of scenic photographs of Mongolia one day over lunch. He recently graduated with a biology degree from the university in UB. During our previous meeting Dr. Bold had told me he held great hope for Nyambayar developing into one of Mongolia's premier biologists. After graduation Nyambayar joined the World Wildlife Fund of Mongolia and has been working on gazelle, although his primary interest remains birds of prey.

This second meeting with Dr. Bold and associates was to hear their priorities for Mongolia and recommendations as to how The Peregrine Fund might assist. The priorities were to (1) have a Mongolian specialist on birds of prey, (2) to have this specialist be Nyambayar, and (3) to have the knowledge on eagles in Mongolia expanded through scientific research. At the same time they emphasized how little was known about all raptors in Mongolia and the great need for good information. We agreed to take their priorities and recommendations under consideration and to meet the following day when we would try to develop a plan of action.

Sprinting from the Academy, Badral had the van waiting to take us to the national performance center. Time for a cultural experience. We wondered what to expect and were impressed by an amazing performance by Mongolian musicians and dancers. The beautiful theater was almost at capacity, being crowded with local people. We appeared to be the only visitors present. Mongolian being the only language spoken did not reduce any of the benefits from the performance. The performers were exceptionally talented and music was traditional to modern. Most of the musical instruments were traditional and several solos were performed which provided a demonstration of the music possible from each.

We ended the day with a Chinese dinner complete with Shel speaking Mandrin Chinese with the waiter and restaurant owner. In the background we could hear karaoke singers pounding out U.S. pop tunes. An interesting combination. Joining us tonight were two Wildlife Conservation Society biologists who were working on Mongolia Gazelle. That species exists in the hundreds of thousands in Mongolia and migrates in large herds across Mongolia, similar to wildebeest movements in the Serengeti of Africa.

Day Ten - Our last day was filled with more meetings, including some missed due to our late arrival. One of the latter was lunch with several people working on environmental issues in Mongolia. Of special note was Chimed-Ochir Mazarsad, Director, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Mongolia. Over a dinner that evening that Shel had arranged for us, we spoke with Dr. Andrew Laurie, Chief Technical Adviser to the Ministry for Nature and the Environment/UNDP/UNOPS/GEF. We learned a great deal and appreciated the opportunity provided by all.

Probably our most important meeting of the last day was with Dr. Bold and Nyambayar. Responding to their priorities, with Rob Comstock's financial assistance and enthusiastic support and Chimed-Ochir's blessing, we agreed to develop a program for Nyambayar to provide the training and advanced education necessary for him to become a specialist in raptors for Mongolia and to further assist with his research. We further agreed to assist both the Mongolian Ornithological Foundation and Bird of Prey Association which Drs. Bold and Boldbaatar head, respectively. With these conservation wheels set into motion, Daniel took the final pictures documenting the event and we said our goodbyes. Later we said our farewell to Shel and told him it was now his turn to visit us. He reminded us of his prophecy that no one visits Mongolia only once.

Day Eleven - Nearing the airport it seemed only appropriate we should stop to let a herd of cattle cross the highway bridge leaving UB. The sights along the road were the same as when we arrived, but we now viewed them with a better insight. Mongolia and its people are exceptional and have our thanks and admiration.

Badral escorted us to immigration and was the last to say goodbye. He represents much of what is now Mongolia, an intelligent, hardworking person making a life in a rapidly changing world. Compared to most countries, change has come slow in Mongolia, but with the new century that is unlikely to continue. It is Badral, Nyambayar, and others like them who are the new future for the country. Fortunately for Mongolia, these are good people with a vision for the future, but still firmly grounded in culture and with a knowledge of the past.

Boarding the late-departing Korean Airlines flight, I located my seat. I had asked for an aisle seat toward the front of the airplane. The seat I received, however, was the last in the airplane and against a window with the only view a jet engine. Daniel and Rob were immediately in front of me. As we were becoming annoyed, who should show up but our friend, the MIAT Mongolian Airlines manager from Seoul. Even with his continuing unbounded enthusiasm, changing was impossible and he was ushered to his seat by the scolding flight attendant.

Landing in Korea, and after helping us all with our flights, Rob drove into Seoul for a night meeting and the next day departed to Italy. Daniel flew to the Newark, New Jersey airport and a film shoot for a British fashion magazine. And I headed to San Francisco, then Boise to get ready to leave for the Philippines in a couple of days. I retrieved the hours lost by passing back across the date line so I arrived home the same day, although it lasted 30+ hours. Another day in the field (sort of) for a biologist.

Find more articles about Harpy Eagle, Philippine Eagle, Asia-Pacific

Most Recent Entries Atom feedshow-hide

Our Authorsshow-hide

Our Conservation Projectsshow-hide

Species we work withshow-hide

Where we workshow-hide

Unknown column 'Hits' in 'field list'
Support our work - Donate