Text by Denis Keen:
Sary Satylganov, the last great eagle hunter of Kyrgyzstan, has passed away.
When I met Sary-Ata in 2010, he was 83 years old but had the energy and humor of a much younger man. Every month for nearly a year I drove from Bishkek to his home in the small village of Aksai Sovkhoz, scenically located along the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul. I was conducting researching on traditional Kyrgyz falconry for a Fulbright Fellowship, and Sary-Ata was a famous münüshkör, or falconer. He agreed to share with me everything he knew, which was an amazing honor - Sary-Ata had been capturing, training and hunting with hawks, falcons and golden eagles for seven decades.
Sary-Ata was the last keeper of a body of traditional knowledge that had been passed down for centuries. He knew how to "read" an eagle by counting the ridges on its feet and inspecting its tail feathers. He knew more than forty varieties of bürküt, or golden eagle, and could describe their personalities. Aspiring hunters from miles around came to Sary-Ata in order to ask for advice about how to care for and train their birds.
Since that year in Kyrgyzstan, I've been back every year or two to visit the man who became my "Kyrgyz grandpa." He always had a big smile when he saw me. He got to meet my father, my brother and my wife, and he always asked about my family. During that first year, I would visit with my research assistant Abay Aitikulov, and Abay would help translate. Later, when I learned Kazakh, I would go on my own and Sary-Ata and I would try to find a common language, as I spoke Kazakh and he spoke Kyrgyz, which are close enough to be understandable. Sometimes we didn't even have to speak, because he'd just pat my leg and smile and nod.
I'll miss you, Ata. Imandy Bolsyn.