When Palani Mohan was a 17-year-old photographer with the Sydney Morning Herald, he came across a photograph of a man standing on the mountain edge with a golden eagle on his arm. The image stayed with him for a very long time. Years later, now based in Hong Kong, he jumped at an opportunity to visit Mongolia, travelling far West to the Altai Mountains in search of the Kazakh and their age-old tradition. For hundreds of years, the nomadic Kazakhs who live here have been using the majestic golden eagles to hunt foxes, marmots and wolves. “I had no idea what I was going to find there. When I found that the tradition was dying out with only 50-60 eagle hunters left, I realised that this is an important story to tell,” says Palani.
The relationship between hunter and eagle is a special one, with the eagles becoming a part of the family. The hunter would take an eagle pup from its nest when it is about four years old. The pups are always female, as they are larger, more powerful and more aggressive than the males. A grown eagle can have a wingspan reaching up to nine feet and weigh over 15 pounds. Once trust has been established, the hunters will train the eagles to hunt. The relationship is not forever. After six to eight years, the eagle is released back into the wild to breed. In his lifetime, a hunter can have several eagles.
The project took five years, with Palani making repeated trips back to the area, mostly in winter. Hunting takes place in this brutal climate when temperatures can plummet to below 40 degrees Celsius. “It was the most difficult project I have done. I’ve missed 90% of the photographic moments because my fingers were frozen or my gear broke down. But I think I have photographed all the remaining hunters, if not 95% of them,” he says. This body of work documents the incredible relationships that can exist between man, animals and his environment. Besides exhibitions and publications, Palani has recently published a book called Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs. There will be a book presentation and artist Q&A on 8 December at the Official Workshop & Festival Centre, 2pm.