The (Questionably) Honorable Kazakh Tradition of Livestock Theft

Cattle Herder on King's Gate Ranch
A herder drives cattle across King’s Gate Ranch. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

With 2,500 head of livestock, it can be hard to notice when a few go missing. Especially on King’s Gate Ranch, 75,000 acres of fenceless rangeland in northern Kazakhstan.

During fall roundup, Dauletgail Zhaitapov, a young rancher in northern Kazakhstan, realized his horse herd was 100 animals short. These weren’t just any horses; they were Bulgaljars, 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. Because the wind usually blows south-to-north on Zhaitapov’s ranch, he knew which direction to look. The rustlers likely made a run for “The Labyrinth,” a rocky badlands just beyond his ranch’s northern boundary.

If his ranch were 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 cross a ranch to reach the other side.

There is an upside to fenceless land. Without strands of wire to cling to, tumbleweeds don’t have fence lines to use for breeding grounds. Also, wildlife can travel across the land unhindered. As can be seen in some parts of the —> Read More