Water Buffalo on Ilha do Marajó
“The buffalo isn’t as dangerous as everyone makes him out to be. Statistics prove that in the United States more Americans are killed in automobile accidents than are killed by buffalo.”
-Art Buchwald (American Journalist, b.1925)
Following a recommendation from several friends, Alex and I decided to spend part of our time in Pará on Ilha do Marajó (Marajó Island), the largest freshwater island in the world. It’s only a 3 hour boat ride from Belém, and at 15,500 square miles, it’s slightly larger than the country of Switzerland. Marajó sits almost directly on the equator, bounded by the mouth of the Amazon River and the Pará River, with the easternmost side facing the Atlantic Ocean. We took our friends’ advice and stayed at a small bed and breakfast on Praia Joanes (Joanes Beach) called Pousada Ventania do Rio-Mar, which featured private hammocks, themed rooms, private beach access, and international welcomings in over 10 languages (all for less than $40/night!). Praia Joanes was the best beach I have ever been to, simply because being able to swim in perfectly cool fresh water trumps any view on any saltwater beach.
The Pousada also offered day excursions, and one afternoon we decided to go canoeing on the Amazon river with a guide. Despite my slight fear of water travel (especially via canoe or kayak!), the experience was amazing – we saw sloths, tons of toucans, the famous scarlet ibis, monkeys, and many more animals and wildlife. If you’d like to check out a very basic video we made on the trip, click here.
In addition to the massive amount of ecology and wildlife Marajó sustains, the island is home to over 500,000 wild water buffalo – which outnumber the human population more than 2-1. As a result, buffalo products, namely meat and cheese, are a huge part of the local diet. One local we met explained that in most restaurants and stores in Belém, what’s sold as beef is actually buffalo meat. People know this, but no one really complains or cares.
I’ve been a fan of bison meat for a while now – however, the American Bison/Buffalo is a different species than the wild water buffalo (though they are distantly related). Legend has it that the buffalo are descended from animals that swam ashore from a French ship that sank while en route from India to French Guiana. The water buffalo came to Brazil from Asia, and have thrived in the tropical Amazon climate as both a source of meat and as a livestock animal. They’re less prone to disease and infection, they live longer, and their weight is more evenly distributed, making them much more valuable as a farm animal.
Buffalo vs. Cattle comparison
MEAT: Buffalo meat is 12 times leaner than cattle meat when comparing fat. It has 40% less cholesterol, 55% fewer calories, 11% more protein, and 10% more mineral content. Buffalo doesn’t have the heavy marbling of intramuscular fat that domestic corn-fed cattle does, making it significantly healthier. In Brazil, this fact isn’t widely known, so buffalo is seen as a very abundant, inexpensive meat – whereas in the USA and Japan, meat of this quality is highly prized and much more expensive.
MILK: As a dairy animal, water buffalo milk has almost twice the quality of cattle milk. The digestive system of water buffaloes permits them to turn low grade vegetation into rich milk which, due to its higher percentage of solids, provides higher levels of protein, fat and minerals than cow’s milk. Buffalo milk contains less water, more protein, and more lactose than cattle milk. It’s thicker than cattle milk because it contains around 25% more solids. Buffalo milk averages 7% butterfat and 18% total solids, while cattle averages only 3.8% butterfat and 11% solids; therefore, buffalo milk can produce almost twice the amount of butter or cheese as an equal volume of cattle milk. It takes almost 4 gallons of cattle milk to make 1lb of butter, whereas it takes only 1.75 gallons of buffalo milk. In Asia, buffalo milk is even considered to be a mild aphrodisiac!
Buffalo mozzarella is known worldwide for its superior taste and quality. In Italy (Campana), buffalo mozzarella holds a protected DOC label. In New York, buffalo mozzarella can sell for over $20 per pound. In Marajó, it’s the cheapest cheese you can buy.
The local specialty here is called Filé Marajoara – it’s basically a grilled buffalo steak covered with melted buffalo mozzarella. Another typical buffalo dish is called frito do vaqueiro (“cowboy’s fry”), which is buffalo meat cooked in its own fat (sort of like a confit), served with a type of gravy made with manioc flour and buffalo milk. With its proximity to water, seafood is also a dietary mainstay, especially the large freshwater fish like pirarucu.
Everyone we encountered on the island raved about how docile and friendly the water buffalo are. Locals use buffalos as a mode of transportation, and Marajó actually has a buffalo-mounted police force, which I happened to find incredibly entertaining. We decided to overcome our uneasiness about approaching the buffalo and, on our way back to our bed and breakfast, we tried to make friends with a buffalo who was lazily grazing on the side of the dirt road.
The buffalo seemed to glare at us as we slowly approached. The closer Alex got (yes, I made him go first…), the more irritated the buffalo became. When he was about 3 feet away, arm outstreched to pet it, the buffalo began snorting and scraping its hooves against the ground as if it were about to charge. That was it for me – I plastered myself against a tree and Alex tried to walk away calmly as it began to gallop towards us. A local man was walking past us at that exact moment, and muttered something under his breath that ended in “camiseta vermelho!!!”
We looked at each other, feeling like the most retarded tourists in existence, and quietly snuck back into the hotel. Lesson learned: don’t approach a wild buffalo wearing a bright red t-shirt.