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Indonesia’s Water Buffalo Races

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Indonesia’s Water Buffalo Races

Thousands of tourists flock to Indonesia to see animal cruelty in action, clapping and cheering the blood soaked water buffalo as they gallop past whilst being bludgeoned with a rod of wood that’s studded with dozens of bloodied nail spikes.Welcome to Bali’s Water Buffalo Races.

To give the buffalo extra zing for the two kilometre race, hot chilli paste is rubbed into into each animal’s anus and into their wounds just prior to the start of the race. As reported in the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia has a history of rubbing hot chilli into captive soldiers wounds, recorded  under “war crimes.”

The races look to be a festive occasion on the surface but that’s a cover for the heavy gambling thats at the core of the day’s event. Mainly men, they gamble on buffalo teams, jockeys, who will win, who will fall and so on. Some people gamble to the point of selling their possessions in order to keep gambling on the buffalo races. The wining buffalos are used for stud and can be sold at handsome prices, sometimes even twice the market price.

Before the race there is usually a “sandro” (shaman) who puts a spell on the jockey’s “magic stick” , a wooden rod heavily spiked with protruding nails, to beat the bulls to go faster. The spell is to give the “magic stick” extra power and it is also (falsely) believed to give the jockey extra power to be able to beat the buffalo enough to make them win. The races are very dangerous for buffalo and jockeys. If the jockey falls he will be trampled by the team bearing down upon him, from behind.

The buffalo are divided into two teams: east and west. Pairs of buffalo from the two teams are released once every two minutes continually, until all of the buffalo have raced. Both buffalo chariots race on the same track but start in different positions. Because they start in a different position on the same line, they have their own finish position. The winner is the pair of buffalo that get to their finish line first.

Jockey using his "magic stick" nail spiked rod to beat the buffalo. to run faster.

Jockey using his “magic stick” nail spiked rod to beat the buffalo. to run faster.

Buffalo owners take the normally docile water buffalo, decorate it in colourful costumes, strap harness to them and force them to gallop as fast as they can, as they beat the buffalo mercilessly with nail-studded rods of wood. Because of so much interest from tourists, races can be held upon request, any time of the year. Travel packages are even offered which include transportation, lunch, festival entry, insurance and a guide.

Blood gushes down the rump of buffalo after buffalo, as the exhausted animals pass the finish line and are met with a wall of yelling men, screaming at the buffalo to stop. Deep wounds of ripped flesh, caused each time the jockey’s “magic stick” leave  open wounds that run with blood, as shown in the photographs.

Sometimes exhaustion or injury causes one of the buffalo team to stop running, which in turn means the other buffalo also has to stop. When this happens the jockey uses all his powers bludgeoning the buffalo to persuade the animal to resume racing, as crowds roar with laughter. Buffalo who suffer exhaustion are considered “cursed.”

Note the fresh wounds on the racing bulls neck.

Note the fresh wounds on the racing bulls neck.

The races are known as Makepung and are a major draw card for tourists. Not only are tourists yelling and cheering, tourists now demand to join in and race the water buffalo as well. An example of tourists demanding to race are three young Australian men who attended the festival and were filmed by an Australian film crew.

The film crew captured footage of buffalo drivers bludgeoning their buffalo with nail-spiked wooden rods, as the buffalo galloped at full capacity, heaving and straining to go faster, beyond what their body could bare.  The three young men stopped and spent a few minutes looking at blood soaked buffalo and justified it by saying “Oh well, it’s cultural.”

Within minutes the three men demanded to be allowed to “have a go” at racing. Buffalo owners laughed at them and called them crazy, but the three men insisted. They were not allowed to race in the main part of the festival (because they didn’t have a clue what they were doing), but they were given buffalo and told not to go faster than a walk.

Tourist "having a go" with a blood soaked buffalo.

Tourist “having a go” with a blood soaked buffalo.

The buffalo which the three men were given to “have a go” with, had already raced and were standing haggard in exhaustion, in pain and covered in blood. Unbelievably, the three tourists had no regard for the state of the animals (water buffalo) and had the audacity to be angered that they were only allowed to walk. After the television show was aired, the behaviour of the three Australian men caused outrage amongst animal lovers in Australia who were appalled at what they saw.

The three young men are only one example of tourists at the buffalo races, footage is available of American and British tourists too. While it is terrible to see animal cruelty taking place, it is equally terrible to witness tourists turning a blind eye and choosing to participate in it.

Indonesian racing water buffalo and jockey.

Indonesian racing water buffalo and jockey.

The Makepung races usually commence at 7.30am and the events last for five hours. Another hundred or so buffalo take part in the fashion exhibition for bovine outfits.. There’s usually several heats from July to November, held at different circuit locations. The night before the finals, there is a huge party for all the people involved in the final teams.

“The sound of the cow bells tied to the buffaloes’ necks is magical,” says Abdurrahman, a local who claims to have been to every single Malean Sampi event in Narmada, Lombok. “The buffalo’s bells are like the sound of spirits ensuring the grounds remain fertile. They are like prayers to God.” Welcome to Indonesia.

Thank you for reading.

Michele Brown.


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