zebu of Madagascar

The place of the zebu in Madagascar

The place of the zebu in Madagascar

The Zebu (Bos taurus indicus) is a bovid better known under the name of humpback ox and called by the local Malagasy population “Omby”.  It is a domestic bovid descended from an Indian subspecies of the aurochs. The word zebu comes from the Tibetan “Zeba” etymologically meaning “bump”.

This animal, who was imported from Africa during the first millennium of our era, occupies an essential place in Malagasy culture. Its domestication makes it, for centuries, one of the pillars of the island economy and social order.

As a young boy in Madagascar, having a zebu was no different from a child from another country having a dog especially in the countryside. But zebus, in my culture, are not only a symbol of wisdom, but they are an integral part of life here in Madagascar.

Nicolas Madagascar expert

What are the origins of the zebu of Madagascar?

The presence of the zebu on the big island is not new. The first traces of these bovids in Madagascar date back to the 8th century. This is what archaeological excavations carried out in particular in the south and on the highlands at “Andramasina Ambohimanana” have revealed.

According to the researchers, these early zebus were small, and most importantly, did not have a hump. It was only through the African and Austronesian migratory currents that new breeds took root on the island, such as the humpback ox. This last breed has gradually established itself to become the norm among most Malagasy breeders. So much so that the animal has become a symbol of power and prosperity for the owner.

Madagascar zebus
Madagascar zebus

Photo by Flickr user Mica Lauret

Why is the zebu considered a sign of wealth and power in Madagascar?

In the past and still today in many places on the island, a man’s wealth is measured by the numbers of zebus he owns. His cattle are his most precious possession. In a part of the South of the country, in the “Mahafaly” region, when the owner dies, a large part of the herd is slaughtered and the horns are exhibited on his tomb to show his wealth.

The most powerful families are those with the largest herds. This family asset, recognisable by ear tags, is placed under the authority of the eldest of the elder branch (firstborn of the eldest of the siblings). Of course, kings were the most powerful. The zebu has long been given as a gift to ask for the hand of a young girl and to close deals.

Madagascar Zebu
Madagascar Zebu

Photo by Flickr user Becky Jaffe

What is the place of the zebu in the rites of Madagascar?

Zebus are also sacred animals that play an important role in ceremonies. All rituals must be supervised by an “Ombiasy” or Diviner and must be accompanied by the sacrifice of one or more animals.

As the number depends on the colour of their coat (a fact known only by the Ombiasy), the ideal is to have as many zebus as possible to be prepared for any eventuality. Sacrifices are also made on certain occasions as offerings to the ancestors called “Razana” by the Malagasy people.

Here are some examples:

  • In the North, in “Anivorano”, the zebus are sacrificed to feed the sacred crocodiles of the lake “Antagnavo”
  • In the highlands zebus are sacrificed to commune with the ancestors and ask them for blessing at any inauguration
  • In the north of the province of Toamasina in the eastern region of Madagascar, zebus are sacrificed to ask permission to cultivate arable land where a grave is found.
Zebus and Malagasy people
Zebus and Malagasy people

Photo by Flickr user Charles Cantin

Why are zebus becoming rare in Madagascar?

It has always been considered that there were as many zebus as there were inhabitants on the Big Island. In the “Tsiroanomandidy” region, in central-western Madagascar, the number of zebus sold is in decline. It has grown from 90,000 head per year in the early 1990s, to around 60,000 in recent years, according to Madagascar’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

On the whole herd, the number fell from 20 million animals in 2005 to 9 million in 2015. The vertiginous fall of the herd is caused by the trafficking and theft of zebus by the “Dahalo” or Poachers.

In the “Bara” culture, an ethnic group from the south, the Dahalo is the one who steals a zebu to offer it to the father of his future wife, or to settle a dispute between two families. Today, zebu theft is no longer just carried out in this way but has become a large-scale criminal practice, spreading across the country.

The “Dahalo” are now structured in organised gangs ready to do anything, even kill to steal animals. This phenomenon leads many breeders to give up their activity, which is now considered to be far too dangerous.

Herd of zebus
Herd of zebus

Photo by Flickr user Carolyn Becker-Tay

What else is the zebu used for in Madagascar?

The zebu is still widely used today as a working tool in the Malagasy countryside. It is even possible to see zebu ploughs in the town of Antananarivo, among the cars, on the outskirts of rural communities. For ploughing fields, transporting crops, goods and whatever, the plough is still widely used.

The horned ox is also the subject of a national sport called “Savika”. This sport consists of holding onto the zebu’s hump and using its legs as a kind of spring so as not to fall and be trampled. You have to hold out as long as possible. In the central highlands of Madagascar, men of the Betsileo ethnic group practice “zebumachia” to impress young girls.

In addition, the horns and the skin of this animal are used as raw materials for craftsmen making objects of all kinds: decoration, tom-tom, utensils, etc.

With its large horns and its hump on the back, it is an integral part of the Malagasy landscape. Moreover, legend has it that there are as many “Omby” as there are inhabitants on the island! Be sure to get up close and personal with a zebu when you visit Madagascar!

Feel free to travel to Madagascar to verify the role of this animal in Malagasy daily life and live a unique experience.

Read the Madagascar Travel Guide by Nicolas

2 thoughts on “The place of the zebu in Madagascar”

  1. where in “Tana” can I purchase really super Zebu items. I’m coming to Madagascar in April of this year (2023). I’d like both natural and very colorful died Zebu necklaces.

    Thanking you in advance and hoping to hear from you shortly

    Miss Kerry Scanlan

    1. Nicolas Raherinjatovo

      Hi Kerry Scanlan,
      Antananarivo is home to a plethora of shops that offer items crafted from zebu. One of the most popular markets is the “La Route Digue Market”, situated on the outskirts of the city. This market boasts a diverse range of artisanal crafts, with a particular focus on zebu horn items such as combs, jewellery, and decorative objects.

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