The theft of zebus—large humped cattle—by youth commonly known as “dahalo” or “malaso” is a daily occurrence for populations living in the southern regions of Madagascar. This ancestral tradition is a way for young men to prove their virility and has, until recently, been considered a petty crime. Zebus represent economic wealth in this country where monthly income can hover under $40, while a cow can be sold for as much as $120. But the stealing of zebus became a national issue once the dahalo started organizing in groups. Armed with assault rifles and military training, they do not hesitate to kill.

In 2012, a dahalo named Remenabila with 200 to 300 young men under his command stole thousands of zebus, killing 12 policemen in Labohazo Village in the process. This affair triggered a large military operation named “Tandroka,” designed to reestablish order and capture Remenabila, dead or alive. International observers were quick to condemn the violent methods towards the rural populations, including the razing of entire villages. In 2013, the military announced that Remenabila had been killed, although local journalists have noted this hasn’t been independently confirmed, and that Remenabila is as much myth as man.

Since then, the practice of stealing zebus has not stopped. Rumors of a successor to Remenabila continue to circulate. Efforts to curtail the ongoing theft that continues to plague the country—particularly in the south—include a new military operation that will utilize drones.

Etosoa Mihary, left, and Tsiry, from the village of Ambatotsivala, were arrested on suspicion of having murdered Remanjaka, from the village of Andranondambo. This murder inflamed tensions between the communities, which are rooted in authorities’ belief that the people from Ambatotsivala are dahalo.
1. A zebu breeder comes home with his cattle / 2. Portrait of Remenabila
People from the villages of Andorisa and Morarano gathered to rebuild makeshift lodgings after their villages were set on fire by the army in late 2012 in the Tandroka operation.
1. A police officer from the Coup d’Arrêt military operation stopped his team to make a phone call. / 2. Children keep zebus in Ahovotsotse. It is considered impossible for a cattle owner to expose his zebus in the open like this, unless he himself is a dahalo.
Walking to the villages that were set on fire by the Army, which are only reachable by foot.
Jean-Baptiste poses with his wife and kids in their house’s ruins. “We were coming back from the rice fields when we saw the military men burning our house down. I remember it well, it was a Monday around noon. They took one of our zebus for them to eat.”

The newsletter you need Get more Bourdain in your inbox. This week: Southern Italy.