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To Wrap Your Arms around Kazakh Tradition,
Try a Falconry Show

By David Witherspoon

ne of the best ways to get a feel for Kazakhstan’s warrior-nomad heritage is to watch falconry in action.

The country’s growing ranks of falconers have been delighted to learn that their sport is a tourist draw – and many earn a little money by exhibiting their skills for visitors.

Tourists who want to see a falconry display should consider the Sunkar Raptor Sanctuary, six miles south of Almaty in the foothills of the Alatau Mountains. It’s close enough to visit and to get back to a comfortable big-city hotel bed the same day.

The sanctuary has hundreds of birds of prey. They include endangered saker falcons that sheiks in South Arabia and the United Arab Emirates love to hunt with. It also has the much larger golden eagles that Kazakhs favor. Then there are Eurasian black vultures, which are awesome to behold because of their nine-foot wing spans.

Paul Pfander, an ethnic-German Kazakh, puts on a daily falconry show for visitors. To spare animal lovers the pain of seeing a rabbit, fox or other animal killed, he has his golden eagle, Khan, swoop down on a wolf hide.

Falconers at other locations use live prey. So if you’re reluctant to see a divebombing death, ask your tourist agency to direct you to a show that uses nonbreathing targets.

Pfander’s falconry show is awe-inspiring. To start with, Khan has a six-foot wing span.

Kazakh FalconryThen there’s the grace he displays when soaring aloft, riding the air currents while keeping an eye out for prey. If there’s a target in the area, the eagle will find it. He can spot a potential victim from up to two miles away.

The most breathtaking component of the show is the eagle’s instantaneous shift from glider to dive-bomber once it recognizes a target.

Golden eagles, known in Kazakhstan as steppe eagles because of the territory they inhabit, can barrel down on prey at 120 miles an hour.

As enjoyable and educational as falconry shows are, the Sunkar Raptor Sanctuary is not just in the tourist business. It pursues the serious objective of saving birds of prey, particularly the saker falcon.

It has bred hundreds of raptors over the years.

Saker populations have dwindled in the Middle East to the point that wealthy Arabs are buying them from Kazakhstan. A trained saker with the right colors – hues make a difference to sheiks -- can fetch up to $50,000, according to Middle Easterners who visit Kazakhstan.

Not only do sheiks come to the country to buy sakers. They also hunt in Kazakhstan. Some have bought hunting preserves and visit several times a year to keep their falconry skills honed. Others lease hunting grounds.

Experts argue about where falconry started. The locations most often mentioned are Mongolia, which borders Kazakhstan to the east, or Persia – modernday Iran. But for sure it was in Asia or the Middle East.

Wherever it began, there is evidence it dates back 10,000 years, preceding the invention of writing.

Genghis Khan, the Mongol ruler who conquered Kazakhstan, China, the Middle East and parts of Europe in the 12th Century, had dozens of birds, along with the hundreds of handlers needed to keep them fit and trained.

Falconry spread from Asia and the Middle East to Russia and Europe, where it was particularly popular during the Middle Ages.

The Soviet Union suppressed symbols of ethnic identity during its 70 years, so falconry languished in Kazakhstan during the 20th Century.

It has bounced back since independence in 1991, with young Kazakhs in particular embracing the sport as a way of connecting with their roots. That has led to the founding of falconry training schools.

One is at the Zhalair Shora Falconry Center and Museum in the mountainfoothills village of Nura, also near Almaty.

Instructor Ablykhan Zbasov’s students come not just from the Almaty area but from all over Kazakhstan.

That kind of enthusiasm bodes well for the future of falconry in the country – and for the enjoyment of tourists who want to see one of nature’s greatest shows.

Kazakh Falconry

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