In the northern Brazilian island of Marajo, visitors are greeted with a peculiar sight: an abundance of water buffalo, originally native to India and Southeast Asia but now thriving in their new South American home.
There are different tales surrounding their arrival on the island, with some suggesting they came ashore from a shipwreck off the coast, while others claim that escaped prisoners from French Guiana used them to navigate the mangroves to reach Brazil. The origins of these Asian water buffalo on Marajo remain a mystery, but they have seamlessly adapted to the island’s tropical climate, coexisting harmoniously with the human population of around 440,000.
Today, there are approximately half a million water buffalo on Marajo, outnumbering the human inhabitants. These excellent swimmers can grow to impressive sizes, reaching up to 1,200 kilograms and 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) from nose to tail. They play essential roles on the island, serving as work animals in the town of Soure, where they pull carriages through the streets and assist farmers in the fields.
Local culture deeply reveres these creatures, featuring their curved horns on product logos and commemorating them in sculptures and murals. Marajo’s festivities even include buffalo races. Moreover, buffalo meat, particularly the succulent steaks accompanied by buffalo mozzarella, frequently graces restaurant menus.
The intriguing part is that these water buffalo have also found employment as patrol animals for the military police in Soure. Heavily-armed officers ride on specially-adapted seats on their backs. The headquarters of the Soure military police unit proudly displays a plaque crafted from bullet casings, depicting a formidable buffalo clutching a shotgun. According to battalion commander Leomar Aviz, this unique form of policing emerged out of necessity three decades ago when officers needed to navigate the flooded Marajo fields, earning them the moniker “Buffalo Soldiers,” reminiscent of the 19th-century US army regiments predominantly comprising people of African descent, celebrated by reggae legend Bob Marley a century later.
During the rainy season, these water buffalo effortlessly traverse the muddy mangroves, and the police claim they can achieve speeds unmatched by horses or even motorcycles. However, mastering the art of buffalo control demands extensive training, and there’s a humorous claim among veteran officers that buffaloes possess the uncanny ability to detect criminals from over a kilometer away—a jest often shared with newcomers, as Aviz humorously revealed to AFP.