The Eagle WhispererEntrepreneur Sam Cossman believes technology has the potential to help us better understand the most extreme places on our planet. But when he traveled to Mongolia to train with an eagle master, he found tech no match for ancient knowledge.
Last year there wasn’t an eagle-hunting competition that Kairat Khan didn’t win. The herder, a native of the Bayan-Ölgii region in the northwest of Mongolia, swept all three of the events, including the prestigious Golden Eagle Festival. His dominance was such that Mongolia’s president awarded him a medal of honor. But reputation isn’t the only thing at stake.
During the harsh Mongolian winter — when humans are most challenged in the steppes — Kairat Khan’s golden eagles are the source of sustenance. The arctic foxes and small animals they kill provide meat and the fur that clothes him and his family. And it’s precisely that line between life and death that prompted filmmaker, explorer and start-up veteran Sam Cossman, to fly thousands of miles to spend Christmas in an adobe hut in subzero temperatures.
“I come from this world of developers using modern tools to disrupt and innovate, and essentially, those are the wizards of our time. They’re writing in a new language; they’re developing tech that they haven’t been able to in the past,” he says. “You can almost call Kairat Khan a programmer. He has received tribal knowledge that has been passed down. And now his language is his ability to communicate with this animal and developing and programming this animal. It’s the analog version of the digital world that we experience here.”
A native of Georgia, Cossman grew up in the outdoors. When it came time to pick a career, the hustle and energy of the start-up world attracted him. He worked at a few companies before a trip to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake changed his life.
“It made me realize that life was short, and I wanted to spend my time doing something meaningful and purpose driven,” he says. “And the thing I always loved was adventure and exploration. I think of adventure as more of a self-serving act, whereas exploration has a purpose-driven component.”
He first launched his company Qwake as an online marketplace/idea incubator, hoping to match people with unique skill sets — say falconers — with outdoor enthusiasts. But as a business it proved difficult to scale, so he shelved the idea for a time. Meanwhile, he was invited on a trip to descend into the lava lake of Marum Crater, an active volcano in the South Pacific. A video of the experience he cut on his MacBook on the flight home went viral and landed him on Good Morning America. Now he’s resurrected Qwake as an exploration and tech-focused media company.
“I feel like tech is opening new doors and peeling back layers to the unknown in a way we weren’t able to before,” he says. “And I had the idea that I’d like to go into the world’s extreme environments and leverage tech as a way to learn more about our planet so we can improve the quality of life for our species and solve problems in interesting ways.”
And so he plotted the trip to Mongolia to visit Kairat Khan, from whom he hoped to learn how to hunt with eagles. In his bags, he packed a tracking device from the Marshall Radio Telemetry company that his friend Jim Tigan, a master falconer, had recommended. Via a GPS transmitter and mobile application, it can geo-locate and map the flight patterns of birds of prey while tracking other metrics in real time.
Over the course of a week, Cossman and photographer Justin Bastien lived in the adobe dwelling. Electricity had come to the area two years ago, but the dwelling was heated by a stove fed with surprisingly fragrant manure. They accompanied Kairat Khan and other eagle masters as they hunted on horseback, gaining insight into the training and care provided to the birds by their owners and the bond — developed over years — necessary for success.
“I wanted to know whether the bird was just a tool,” Cossman says. “And he said the key to the success in eagle hunting is having a sense of rapport and trust with your animal. It requires you to treat the bird as a friend, in many cases like a child. We literally slept six feet from an eagle.”
More than a practice, hunting with an eagle was an art form, Cossman realized. He began to wonder whether the device he’d brought with him was really worth introducing. “I didn’t want to impose technology as this almighty solution,” he says. But while Cossman was able to make the device work successfully when he attached it to a drone, mounting it on White Shoulder’s 10-foot wingspan in -22 degree Fahrenheit temperatures proved far too difficult. As a backup, Cossman had a GoPro dog-harness mount that was easier. Together with two others, he lifted White Shoulder’s wings while slipping the straps on.
Using the AeroVision app, Cossman and Kairat Khan were able to watch the eagle’s flight pattern in real time. They learned that the path she covered was perpendicular to that of her prey, making the approach more direct. When she descended for a kill, she did so at a rate of 235 feet per minute, hitting her prey at 42 mph.
“Kairat Khan had engaged in many hunts over the years, but this was the first he viewed through a data-driven lens,” Cossman says. “And while it was clear that modern technology was no match for tribal knowledge passed down through generations, the process of cross-cultural, generational and disciplinary knowledge sharing was enriching beyond words.”
There are an estimated 250 eagle hunters left in the region, all of them Kazakhs who migrated from their nearby country during communism. And the younger generation—including a few of Kairat Khan’s five children—are choosing to abandon the practice for life in the cities. Cossman, who made a similar, if less rugged, transition from Georgia to Silicon Valley, understands their motivations. Still, when he looks at the life of focus Kairat Khan leads — in all of its analog glory — he can’t help but think that the simplicity and generosity of his approach serves as a vital lesson for this digital age.
“There’s a pace and cadence to his life that’s really admirable,” he says. “There’s a certain brilliance that comes from silence, self-reflection and valuing the things that really matter in life. It was clear he was an incredible family man, and also took a tremendous amount of pride in sharing his knowledge. There is no ownership. He was open-sourcing his whole depth of knowledge around this craft.”