Photographing the last golden eagle hunters of Mongolia

When Palani Mohan was a 17-year-old cadet photographer working for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, he saw a very powerful black and white photo of a man holding a golden eagle standing atop a mountain. It was the first time he had ever heard of the Kazakh golden eagle hunters of Mongolia's Kazakh mountains. The hunters have lived high up in the Altai Mountains, where the remote landscape is stark but beautiful and the winters brutal, for hundreds of years. The memory of that image stayed with him.

Mohan said that many decades later, while living in Hong Kong, he received a "junk email" from Mongolian airlines, touting flights to Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital. The photographer decided to head to the far reaches of western Mongolia, not really knowing what he wanted to do -- just that he wanted to make some portraits.

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Click to view images: "Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs"

© Palani Mohan/Courtesy Merrell Publishers

"I finally got to a very remote part of Mongolia where these guys lived," Mohan said. "As soon as I got there, I realized it was a much bigger story than just portraits of these guys. The story was that the real eagle hunters, so-called eagle hunters, were getting old and each winter claims a few more."

A single photo had captured Mohan's imagination enough to seek out the hunters, and he didn't realize they represented a disappearing culture.

The Indian-born Australian photographer was told there were about 60 of the eagle hunters left. That motivated him to try to photograph all of them, sowing the seeds of a photographic odyssey. But he had no idea what he was getting himself in to.

"It was by far the hardest thing physically that I've ever done as a photographer because it was minus 40 (Celsius)," he said. "I hate the cold. Totally hate the cold....gear was collapsing all the time. I was missing pictures all the time."

Still, he kept going back for four years until he thought he had met all of the surviving eagle hunters.

The result of that commitment is a series of incredibly compelling and beautiful black and white images printed in a book by Merrell, "Hunting with Eagles: In the realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs." The photos capture the dignity and independent nature of the hunters, known as burkitshi, their intensely close relationship with the eagles and the rugged landscape they inhabit. As Mohan writes: "The hunters all had stories about how they loved their birds even more than their wives."

The hunters go in search of young female eagles, about four months old, who have had some experience in the wild and with hunting, but can be trained to live with people. They are only kept about 10-15 years after their capture and then released -- granted their freedom. The bond is so strong that the eagles often return. For the hunters, Mohan believes the eagle "encapsulates the open space, the wind, the harshness, the isolation and the freedom of living on the edge of the world."

View photos from "Hunting with Eagles: In the realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs" in the gallery above. Palani Mohan's book is available for sale by on Merrell's website and fine prints are for sale on the photographer's website, palanimohan.com.

Radhika Chalasani is the senior photo editor at CBSNews.com -On Twitter