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The (Questionably) Honorable Kazakh Tradition of Livestock Theft

With 2,500 head of livestock, it can be hard to notice when a few go missing. Especially for Dauletgali Zhaitapov, whose business Kaz Horse Mugalzhar LTD operates on 75,000 acres of unfenced rangeland in northern Kazakhstan.

During fall roundup, Zhaitapov realized his horse herd was 100 animals short. These weren’t just any horses; they were Mugalzhars, a Kazakh breed raised for meat and milk.

The wind is a rustler’s cloak. It gives noisy cover, and plays to the Kazakh horse’s instinct to run nose-into-the-wind. And since it typically blows north-to-south, Zhaitapov knew which direction to look. Which wasn't good news, because the rustlers might've made a run for “The Labyrinth,” a rocky badlands just beyond his ranch’s northern boundary.

If Zhaitapov's ranch was fenced, rustling might not be a problem. But fencing is an alien concept in Kazakhstan where open range was once the birthright of their nomadic culture. Fencing materials are expensive, few know how to build it, and there’s always a risk that someone might steal the fence itself. Kazakhstan has a booming trade in black market metal.

Also, fencing works great for keeping animals in, but not so much for keeping rustlers out. On the few ranches that have fenced their boundaries, fence-cutting is a constant problem. And sometimes, rustling isn’t even the reason. Locals are accustomed to traveling overland, uninhibited. The idea of circumnavigating a property line is strange. Fence lines have been cut just so travelers can reach the other side.

There is an upside to fenceless land. Without strands of wire to cling to, tumbleweeds don’t have concentrated breeding grounds. Also, wildlife can travel across the land unhindered. As can be seen in some parts of the American West, fences can disrupt wildlife migration. Zhaitapov's land is in a remarkably native state, home to deer, antelope, fox, wolves -- and apparently livestock thieves.

A herder drives cattle to water on Zhaitapov's ranch where he runs the business Kaz Horse Mugalzhar LTD. During the USSR, the land was known as King's Gate for its role as a gateway to the rest of the Soviet Union. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

Judicial vs. Customary Law

In dealing with the missing horses, Zhaitapov had two choices: call the police, or go after the rustlers himself.

With the first option, he had civil law on his side. But corruption is rife in local police departments. During a previous theft, Zhaitapov’s father had to enlist a regional politician’s help to get the legal mechanism moving. The police eventually tracked down those rustlers, although too late. They recovered only a few horses, the rest having disappeared without a trace (likely slaughtered and the meat sold to city markets).

For the second option, Zhaitapov could invoke barimte, a customary “law of the steppe.”

In the book Law and Custom in the Steppe, historian Dr. Virginia Marion quoted a former Kazakh rustler who described barimta as the “defence of one’s clan rights and interests, where ‘en eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ was the motto, where revenge was not only considered legal but obligatory, where rights of the strong had not limits. ... [S]uccessful baranta brought celebrated glory to the enterprising horseman.”

It was possible that whomever stole Zhaitapov’s horses considered themselves heroic rustlers. According to Kazakh custom, they would need to be stealing horses to resolve a vendetta against Zhaitapov. As far as the young rancher knew, nobody had grounds for barimte against him. But he couldn’t be 100 percent sure.

Two years ago, Zhaitapov hired a known horse thief for his ranch manager, a man named Marat. His rustling exploits were legendary, even earning him jail time. In part, Zhaitapov hired Marat because of his status among thieves. It was like parking a battleship on his ranch. The threat was obvious: stealing from the Zhaitapovs would be punishable by barimte.

That strategy has caused problems for the landowners. This summer, when 80 cattle were stolen from a neighboring farm, the owners accused Marat. Zhaitapov's ranch manager denies the allegations, but relations remain tenuous between the neighbors.

Zhaitapov didn’t have time to wait for the police. He and Marat loaded into his SUV and went in search of the missing horses.

Zhaitapov and a friend stand on the rim of a natural rock formation that rustlers use to harbor stolen livestock. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

The Labryinth

The landscape looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. Swirling rock formations jutted out of the ground, like the surface of an enormous snail. The Labyrinth has been a safe haven to Kazakh rustlers for centuries. Zhaitapov and Marat came to a butte that thrust up through the steppe grasslands. They got out and scrambled atop it. From above, they saw that it formed a natural stone corral. There were hoof prints on the ground, piles of manure, and even a recent campfire.

Marat speculated that the rustlers had stolen Zhaitapov’s horses in small groups, maybe four or five at a time. They would’ve snuck onto the ranch at night, separating a batch and driving them north, into the wind, to the stone corral. Over the course of a few nights, they collected a large enough band, turned the herd lose and drove them north. Perhaps to Russia. That’s what Marat would’ve done, knowing he could sell them on the black market trade for horse meat.

They continued driving north, eventually coming upon the bodies of dead horses. They bore the Zhaitapov brand. The rustlers had driven the herd so hard and fast, that a few had dropped dead. Zhaitapov’s quest for barimte would be denied. Carrion birds circled in the air, like judges of the steppe delivering their final verdict.


Ryan Bellis a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project#ComradeCowboys.Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.

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