Military police officers patrolled on water buffaloes in Soure, a town of about 23,000 people on Marajó Island, as they have done since the 1990s.Credit...Marizilda Cruppe for The New York Times
Military police officers patrolled on water buffaloes in Soure, a town of about 23,000 people on Marajó Island, as they have done since the 1990s. Photo: Marizilda Cruppe/ The New York Times.

Military police mounted on enormous water buffalo called "Buffalo Soldiers" routinely patrol the streets of the Brazilian island of Marajo, much to the delight of tourists and Bob Marley fans.

The police officers of Soure, Marajo's capital, have been using buffaloes for patrolling the island for years, especially in areas that are inaccessible by car. It's the only department in the world to use buffaloes as police mounts instead of horses.

The Originality of Buffalos of Marajo Island

Photo: Fernando Sette
Photo: Fernando Sette

The arrival of buffaloes on the Brazilian island of Marajo a century ago from Asia has made them a cultural icon there. The animals have adapted well to life in the flooded areas left by the Amazon River. There are currently more buffaloes on Marajo than people (250 total), and the industry surrounding these animals is crucial to the island's economy.

It has been said that they were originally from the hot rice paddies of French Indochina, but that their ship washed up here on its way to French Guiana. According to another urban legend, the skilled swimming buffaloes in Marajó's mangroves were instrumental in the escape of convicts from a penal colony in French Guiana.

No matter how they got there, on an island the size of Switzerland, the invasive species multiplied and now number around 450,000. The water buffaloes play such a central role in daily life that their inhabitants use them to transport garbage, race them at festivals, and feast on fillets of buffalo steak smothered in cheese made from, you guessed it, buffalo milk.

One of Brazil's most out-there policing experiments was born out of that inspiration. Officers from the 8th Battalion here devised a plan to make their rounds atop the crescent-horned beasts, despite the fact that water buffaloes have been domesticated elsewhere for thousands of years and are known as "the living tractor of the East" for their role in plowing fields.

Bazillian Police Patrol Using Buffalo: Why is it special?

Photo: Reddit
Photo: Reddit

In the 1990s, the buffalo unit began patrolling the small town of Soure, home to around 23,000 people, and occasionally intervening in bar fights.

Following suspects into Marajó's wilderness and stopping buffalo rustling on the island's remote ranches have both become part of the mission over the years.

According to José Ribamar Marques, an Embrapa official on Marajó, "Water buffaloes are remarkable swimmers, better than dogs and more agile than horses when it comes to moving through mud." Embrapa is a pioneering Brazilian research company that focuses on tropical ranching and agriculture. The animal is also docile, which makes interactions with humans much simpler.

There are benefits unique to Marajó's buffalo.

Because of the way their hooves are shaped, they are able to navigate muddy swamps with relative ease. They also appear to have no trouble with Marajó's extreme equatorial heat.

Several types of livestock are able to flourish on Marajó, including the Murrah (valued for its meat and milk) and the Carabao (distinguished by its sickle-shaped horns). (Despite sharing its name, the American buffalo is actually a bison, making Asian water buffaloes distinct from it.)

Some authorities also claim that incorporating water buffaloes into police work can help ease tensions.

Interest has been shown in the policing experiment from all over the United States. Rio de Janeiro's elitist magazine Piau dubbed the group Brazil's "Buffalo Soldiers," a play on Bob Marley's reggae classic and the inspiration for the song, the African-American regiments of the American West in the 19th century. However, the American troops did not ride buffalo but rather horses.

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