Where eagles fly, Mongolia wants tourists to follow

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SAGSAY, Mongolia, Oct 7 (Reuters) More than 700 years after Marco Polo wrote about them in his Travels, Kazakh eagle hunters are hoping their traditions will bring badly needed jobs to this remote corner of western Mongolia.

Some 200 hunters, wearing elaborate brocade gowns and fur hats, showed off their skills this weekend at the Golden Eagle festival in the Altay mountains, where tourism is one of the few sources of income.

Swooping down from a cliff, the eagle lands on his master's arm as he gallops across the vast steppes. Judges award points for the fastest time and best technique.

''Training the birds is not easy. You also need a good horse,'' said Abish Mekei, a professor at the National University of Mongolia. ''While very few people know how to train the eagles, younger trainers learn the tradition from older masters.'' Kazakhs, who make up less than 6 percent of landlocked Mongolia's 2.5 million population, have used eagles since ancient times to hunt for marmots, small foxes and wolves.

But the festival has been held only since 2000 as a way of attracting visitors to a part of the country whose remoteness has starved it of investment.

''Economic development of the area is very important, and tourism is an industry that supports employment,'' Mekei said.

Reuters JK GC1556

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