Prayers, poop and bulletproof potions: The life of a cow in the Bara tribe

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(CNN)Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, possesses one of its most fascinating ecosystems. It is home to 200,000 known animal and plant species, and 20 different ethnic groups.

But this is a story of one animal and one ethnic group: the zebu and the Bara tribe.

Sacred beasts

    A zebu -- a type of humped cow -- is precious, sacrosanct even, and integral to the tribe's economy.
    The Bara live in the south west of the island in a region known for its wide variety of terrain, covering sandstone formations, deep canyons and grass lands. It's through these remote landscapes that the tribe guides its cattle.
    Renowned warriors, they've earned their fierce reputation out of necessity. Their cattle must be protected at all costs, and are traditionally guarded with axes and spears.
    "[Zebu] can save us under any circumstance," says Fernando Samby, 16 years old and son of the King of Sakamaninga village. "If we need money for food, we can just sell a cow."
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    Samby mixes school with his pastoral duties, which can occupy entire days.
    "I start early in the morning," he says. "I first take cattle out of their enclosure and then I have my breakfast before taking them out to graze. I'm out with them all day, and will only return in the late afternoon."
    Samby patrols with a gun to ward off potential thieves -- a sight becoming more common among African herding communities, having been documented as far away as South Sudan with the Mundari tribe.
    Like the Mundari, the bond is close between man and beast. Cattle are regarded as an intermediary between the tribe and god. Prayers for their wellbeing are said every morning by King Samby, and the kraal, the cattle house, has spiritual significance.
    "When you enter the kraal we have to take off our hats and shoes," the king's son explains.
    "Even the cow's waste is handled with one's hands because they are not considered to be dirty. After drinking cow's milk the cup that was used must be washed and the water should be thrown to the East, because that is regarded as a sacred direction."

    Red weddings

    Tradition is paramount and the Bara are famous for their unique customs, particularly around marriage. Zebu were once involved here too, husbands-to-be proving their eligibility through "cattle raiding."
    "It's not so common anymore," says anthropologist Sambo Clement. "They would steal only one or two zebu to show strength. The option was either steal or face the consequence of going to jail, if they failed at the task."
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    Rustling might be rare these days, but zebu are still part of marital dowries. Cattle are given to a bride's parents, and only when they are all slaughtered is the couple considered married, explains King Samby.
    Given the sacredness of cattle, the Bara go to great lengths to protect their herds, including consulting a clairvoyant known as an Ombiasy.
    "There are two different kinds of Ombiasy," Clement says, "bad and good. The bad ones are regarded as sorcerers and the good ones are responsible for keeping the peace in society and they are often doctors, astrologists, midwives and traditional Malagasy healers."
    An Ombiasy can use a combination of potions to protect cattle from thieves, the anthropologist explains. One, called Too-ja-ka -- "to spread" in Malagasy -- causes cattle to run away when thieves approach. Another, Si-ham-ba-la-ha-fa, results in the death of cattle as soon as they reach the thief's kraal. There's even a potion to make cattle and their owners bulletproof.
    It's no wonder wannabe husbands are no longer raiding zebu herds. They might just get more than they bargained for.