Marajó Island’s Unique Animal
Marajó Island sits majestically in the mouth of the Amazon River where the river ends its long, arduous journey to the Atlantic Ocean.
Besides the notoriously hot and steamy location directly on the Equator, Marajó Island is well-known among world travelers for two reasons. First, the Amazon River is the world’s longest, so adventurers revel at the sight of its delta. Second, Marajó is the largest fluvial island in the world, an island that sits within the confines of a river. The land area of Marajó is 40 thousand square kilometers (15,500 sq. miles), making it the second largest island in South America.
For the everyday tourist, one who is not accustomed to a rugged Amazonian adventure, the most startling aspect of a visit to Marajó Island is the presence of water buffaloes. These enormous but docile land animals are not native to Brazil or anywhere in South America.
In fact, water buffaloes come from Asia, and legends flourish about how the first water buffaloes arrived on Marajó Island. One tale states that they originally came from the steamy rice fields of French Indochina, but washed up here after the wreck of a ship bound for French Guiana. Another story contends that inmates escaping from a penal colony in French Guiana used the swimming buffaloes to help guide them to freedom in Marajó’s mangroves.
However they arrived, the huge species multiplied on Marajó, and there are today about 450,000 water buffaloes on an island the size of Switzerland. Nowadays, the water buffaloes are welcomed as an essential part of daily life on the island. The native islanders use them for farming, hauling garbage, and even racing them during festivals. Locals also regularly savor fillets of buffalo steak smothered in cheese made from buffalo milk.
Certainly the most interesting role for the water buffalo, at least from a tourist perspective, is their latest job – police escorts. “The importance of the buffalo in Marajó got us thinking,” said Maj. Francisco Nóbrega, 41, an official with the 8th Battalion of the military police of Pará, the state in Brazil’s Amazon region that includes Marajó.
“Why not patrol on buffalo?” Nóbrega asked. Seizing on that idea, one of Brazil’s most unusual policing experiments came into existence. Nóbrega and his officers with the 8th Battalion on Marajó enacted a plan to carry-out their duties while sitting atop the crescent-horned buffaloes.
The buffalo unit started in the 1990s, patrolling the sleepy town of Soure, which has about 23,000 people. Over the years, the mission has expanded to include pursuing suspects who flee into Marajó’s wilds as well as fighting buffalo rustling on the island’s far-reaching ranches. Once a year, the battalion even places its buffaloes and police officers on a ship to Belém, the capital of Pará, where each September 7 they strut down avenues in parades commemorating Brazil’s Independence Day.
The buffaloes of Marajó have several advantages over horses, mules, or oxen. Their widely splayed hooves allow them to move easily through muddy swamps. They also deal well with the punishing heat of Marajó, which sits directly on the Equator. Several breeds of water buffalo thrive on Marajó, like the Murrah, prized for its meat and milk, and the Carabão, known for its sickle-shaped horns. Asian water buffaloes differ from the American buffalo, which is actually a bison, a similar species.
“Water buffaloes are remarkable swimmers, better than dogs, and more agile than horses when it comes to moving through mud,” said José Ribamar Marques, an official on Marajó with Embrapa, the pioneering Brazilian research government agency that focuses on tropical ranching and agriculture. “The animal is also docile, facilitating its contact with human beings,” he noted. Water buffaloes have been domesticated throughout Asia for thousands of years, and they are often called “the living tractor of the East” for their role in plowing fields.
There is another benefit of using water buffaloes in police work, some officials say: It helps lower tensions. “Marajó is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody’s business,” said Claudio Vitelli, 45, a police officer who regularly patrols on a buffalo. “I’ve had to arrest an uncle of mine for a petty offense, and before that, a cousin. Being the guy on the buffalo makes me more approachable, making my job a little bit easier,” he added.
In the town of Soure, where the 8th Battalion operates from a small station adjacent to a corral with about 10 buffaloes, police officers claim that patrolling on the animals can assuage tension with residents by bringing low-ranking personnel in the military police into contact with people who use buffaloes for transportation, farming, or other work.
“Few people know how important our buffaloes truly are, but our police are raising awareness,” said Antenor Penante, 30, the manager of a family-owned tannery, who proudly described how his business uses the dried penises of water buffaloes to make horse whips and riding crops. “We don’t waste any part of the buffalo,” said Mr. Penante, pointing to a collection of purses made from buffalo scrotums in his tannery’s store. “Marajó should be proud of its herds.”
Though water buffaloes can now be found elsewhere in Brazil, no other police forces are using the animals. Officers in the 8th Battalion say they are prepared to lend their buffalo expertise to interested parties, mentioning the Brazilian Army’s respected Jungle Warfare Instruction Center, which sent instructors to Marajó to learn how to use the Asian water buffaloes to replace mules and horses for supplying troops in the rain forest.
“Brazil is a tropical country, and that means we have to find tropical solutions for the challenges we face,” said Emerson Cassiano, 42, a police officer in the buffalo unit. “My friends tease me, saying a buffalo is only good for cutting up into steaks, but that’s an ignorant point of view,” Mr. Cassiano added. “Look what people have accomplished since they started riding horses instead of eating them. Our buffalo patrol could be the start of something big.”
[This article is based on research from The New York Times.]