The symbolic animal of Madagascar with its large, curved horns and it hump, the zebu is considered the embodiment of strength, power and wealth. The expression "strong as an ox" perfectly illustrates our image of it.
Traditionally, the zebu has been a virtual savings bank for rural populations and those who can raise enough money to invest in the acquisition of these animals under the envious looks of neighbours. There is, in fact, a hierarchy of the nature of goods in rural areas, so aptly asserted by King Andrianampoinimerina who said: "If you want to build your fortune, start by raising chickens, then sheep because by reselling them, you can buy an ox.".
Despite progress in various areas, the population of countries such as Madagascar, where there is a high degree of illiteracy, is not yet ready to adopt the banking system and which may even make people nervous. This is understandable: there is so much complicated paperwork that it is preferable for wealth to be kept where it can be seen, and money is invested in the acquisition of zebu.
The greatest satisfaction for a breeder is to watch his animals coming out of the yard to be led to the pasture every morning and, against the backdrop of the setting sun, to return to the villages each evening. It is a somewhat restrictive type of farming, requiring the presence of one or more guards who spend all day outdoors in all weathers to watch the movements of the animals.
What surprises foreigners on seeing these vast herds is the realisation that these animals are not necessarily destined for the butcher because their owners do not want to part with them or if they do, it is grudgingly or in case of force majeure, when they are in urgent need of cash. This farming, for years known as "contemplative" by many economists, is still practised and it seems that the mentality of the population has still not changed. What observers do not understand is that there is a kind of emotional connection between man and his itinerant wealth, so much so that if one of his beasts were to die or depart when sold, the owner is deeply distressed.
The zebu and mitanarivo
It is through observation of the movements of a herd of bulls in a given space that the existence of a hierarchy in the group can be seen, a hierarchy respected by the animals and over which humans have no control. In some parts of Madagascar, particularly in the south and west, the zebus are released in large grassy areas, and there, herds are formed, not in tens but hundreds of head, gathered together in a single place as no cattle pen can be large enough to contain them all. Then, with the sky above them, day and night, these animals benefit from the grass provided to them by nature with no need for the food supplements necessary for those penned up in sheds.
Trough this communal life, the zebu create a hierarchy among themselves, adopting a leader, usually the largest and strongest of the herd who they take as an example. Indeed, this can be seen, either upon the herd's return to the fold or during its presence in the pasture, that the animals always follow the leader who is invariably the largest of them, walking in his footsteps wherever he takes them. It is therefore sufficient for the guards not to lose sight of the leader whose every movement is imitated by his peers, returning them to the right place.
It is this leader who is designated as the mitanarivo, which is to say with many animals under his command and he plays his role perfectly. It was he who led his peers to the best places, where there is grass in abundance, and he makes the first, large bellowing signal when a new situation occurs.
Completely trusting in these mitanarivo, it is unnecessary for the owners to maintain a constant watch over their vast herds, but merely to visit them from time to time to count and to check the state of their health.
The existence of a hierarchy within a herd of zebu is well known to cattle rustlers who exploit it so they can easily get their hands on the animals. Indeed, it is sufficient to identify the zebu leader, the mitanarivo, and to take him because they know that the other animals will follow spontaneously, without any need to collect them. By forcing the leading zebu to run frantically, the robbers are able to move the entire herd who literally runs behind their leader, until exhaustion ensues. This is why pursuers struggle to catch these men and beasts than can travel tens of kilometres in a single night. During this scramble, the herd never loses sight of its leader and observes complete obedience to him, until the new owners separate the animals and disperse. However, once integrated into a new group, the herd instinct of the zebu is revived and the automatically fall in behind their new mitanarivo.
Text from Passport for Madagascar - 66th edition, September/October 2011