Inside a small, dimly lit room in Afghanistan’s southern city of Lashkargah in Helmand province, Pir Mohammad reaches into a clear plastic box where dozens of little yellow scorpions scuttle for cover.
Using a pair of metal tweezers, he gently picks one up by the tail. “This is where the money is,” he laughs, gesturing towards the tear-shaped stinger inches from his finger. “I have international buyers who will pay $1 million per kilo for use in medical research.”
Mohammad, 46, is one of Afghanistan’s first scorpion farmers and in this conflict-ridden country, where a steady income is difficult to come by, he is hoping these small, venomous creatures will bring him serious profits.
From the bustling road outside, Mohammad’s small operation looks like any other building in the city; a squat, two-story structure with splashes of the pastel pinks and greens common in Afghanistan’s south. But in a set of adjoining back rooms, Mohammad has constructed a tidy, climate-controlled haven to raise and breed his rapidly expanding inventory of locally-caught scorpions.
Gravel-filled plastic boxes line every shelf in this makeshift terrarium, that’s home to over 16,000 scorpions plucked from the surrounding landscape. Some of the boxes contain cardboard egg cartons writhing with hundreds of baby scorpions — each no more than an inch long. Others hold larger, more mature specimens that are nearly the size of Mohammad’s palm when stretched out to full length.
Within the bulbous, needle-sharp stinger of each creature is a few drops of one of the most valuable substances on earth.
Scorpion venom is highly prized among medical researchers. “Not all the venom components of scorpions are dangerous to humans, and there are actually many components with useful potential applications in medicine,” says Dr Lourival Possani, a biotech researcher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
This rare substance has a huge range of potential uses, including “as an antimalarial agent, anti-epileptic, insecticide, anti-cancer cell, antibiotic and others,” Dr Possani adds.
Because of its medical value, scorpion venom does not come cheap. One gram of venom can sell for as much as $115,000 and medical catalogues seldom sell more than one gram at a time.
“By volume, scorpion venom is one of the most precious materials in the world. It would cost $39 million to produce a gallon of it,” Stanford University researcher Richard Zare told the Stanford University News. At these prices, even a small harvest of venom could bring huge profits to a man like Mohammad.
Although he is starting on a small scale with just two rooms and 10 staff, Mohammed has much bigger ambitions for his business in the near future. “In the summer, we pay members of the community to go out looking for more scorpions,” he says.
“After eight months of operation, we have collected over 16,000 scorpions. But to be a viable business, we need much more than that. We aim to have one million scorpions by the end of next year, and our long-term goal is to construct a facility that can house 10 million scorpions.”
But the road to this goal is a long one, and so far they are yet to see any profits.
“Because it’s only been eight months since we began this operation, we haven’t yet harvested our first drops of venom,” he says. “Each scorpion takes about six months to produce just one or two drops of venom, which we can then extract, but they don’t start producing this venom until they are almost fully grown. It’s a slow process, and right now, many of our scorpions are still too young to be producing these amounts of venom.”
Once they mature, extracting the venom will be delicate work. A small electrical pulse administered to the scorpion’s stinger causes the venom to be expelled, producing one or two drops of milky white fluid that must be carefully collected in airtight vials.
Mohammad and his team have practised this process in 2018 during their training in Iran, which has its own burgeoning scorpion venom industry, and is one of the only countries where Mohammad and his staff could easily obtain a visa to travel. But they have yet to work on their own scorpions. Each adult scorpion can only produce 1-2 milligrams of venom at a time, and will then take six months or more to replenish their supply.
Mohammad is aware of the risks he is taking in such an unstable economic environment. “I don’t yet have any return on my investment with this venture. I sent 10 of my staff to Iran for specialised training, and I have spent money on specialised equipment like the climate control system and venom-extractions tools.” Training his staff and importing specialised equipment from Europe has already cost Mohammed tens of thousands of dollars, but he remains optimistic about his venture’s outlook. “ I believe that it will pay off. This is not a business for impatient people,” he smiles.
Since 2016, scorpion farming has become increasingly popular across Central Asia and the Middle East and Mohammad’s is not the only venture of this kind in Afghanistan. In Herat, a city in Afghanistan’s west, another group of entrepreneurial Afghans opened their own facility in early 2019, investing over $500,000. But Mohammad hopes to eclipse the scale of his competition once the business takes off.
Now that he has mastered the difficulties of extracting the venom, establishing his client base is the next challenge. International buyers have extremely stringent requirements on the type, quality, and origin of any venom they purchase for research purposes, and, at this point, that's not information Mohammad is able to supply.
Only a handful of internationally recognised companies, like French-run Latoxan and UK-based Venomtech, supply pharmaceutical and research companies with venom on a large scale, and they are subject to strict international safety regulations. But Mohammad seems undaunted. “I know there are people who will buy the product,” he says. “This is not something that I’m worried about.”
Mohammad also hopes the burgeoning venture can benefit his local community in Lashkargah, where wages are low and unemployment is high. “We have about 180 people here in the community who are always looking for scorpions during the summer period. I pay them 300 Afghani (about $4) per scorpion they bring me, which is a significant amount to a normal shopkeeper or farmer.
“These creatures are not really useful to people here, except for use in a few traditional medicines, so something that used to be a pest can now provide some small income to local people,” he adds.
With such potential profits scurrying across the rocky plains of Helmand, Mohammad isn’t worried about competing scorpion farms looking to get a slice of this lucrative business. “Even if everybody in this area knew the value of the scorpion’s venom, they don’t have the right equipment and knowledge to extract it.”
As he places a scorpion back in its terrarium, he seems optimistic about the future of his business. “If we are able to expand, it can help others in this area with jobs and income. We are starting small, but I want this business to grow into one of the best of its kind in the world.”