It’s a get-rich-quick scheme that stings. In quite a few countries, but particularly in Iran, people are trying to turn scorpion’s venom into fortunes. They’ve invested time and money into building farms with thousands of scorpions, and painstakingly milked their venom. There’s just one problem – it turns out nobody actually wants to buy it from them.

On forums, the posts come from people living in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan… and most frequently, Iran: “Scorpion venom for sale”.

A post advertising a special sale for crassicauda scorpions.
 
In Iran, the fad began two years ago. While it is unclear exactly how it all started, reports about the mind-blowing prices that scorpion venom could supposedly be sold for on the international market began to circulate on social media. Soon, Iranian media outlets, including state media, were publishing stories about young entrepreneurs launching scorpion farms, with claims that they could earn US$10 million (about €8.8 million) for each litre of venom produced, by selling it to pharmaceutical companies and scientific researchers.

A video report about a newly launched scorpion farm by Iranian state TV. 

On social media in Iran, it’s easy to find hundreds of photos and videos showing these scorpion farms. Some of them show how the venom is milked: electrodes produce small electric shocks that makes scorpions eject a small amount of venom.

Translation: "Exporting scorpion venom that's more than 95 percent pure, with lab documents. Liquid or powder venom, from one gram to 10 kilos. Biggest farm in the east of the country [Iran]."

In these posts, many entrepreneurs list the price of the venom they are trying to sell, which varies wildly – anywhere from 30 to 90 million Toman per gram (between about €1,760 and €5,290).

The fad became so popular that an entire network of businesses sprung up around the “kajdom” – “scorpion” in Persian. Training centres started popping up to teach people how to raise scorpions, milk their venom and even how to market their product for the international market. These centres also sell scorpions and equipment used to milk venom.

This video shows the venom milking process.

Scorpions snatched out of their ecosystems

To fill the demand, poachers have scoured Iran to capture scorpions alive, from the provinces of Khorasan in the northeast to Fars in the centre to Khuzestan in the southwest. They sell their catch for prices that vary between 3000 and 7000 Tomans per specimen (between €0,17 to €0,41).

Recently, several Iranian environmentalists have sounded the alarm on the dwindling scorpion population and denounced this business as a scam. One of the first to do this was Alireza Shahrdari, a Tehran-based wildlife expert who works for the Department of the Environment. He warned about the risks posed by Iranians’ venom-making fever in an Instagram post.

Translation of wildlife expert Alireza Shahrdari's Instagram post: "Destroying nature with empty claims. Use your head: these scorpion-raising trainings are fraudulent; selling scorpion’s venom is a new scam and the environment is paying the price for the stupidity of humans. Stop this madness."

Shahrdari told the France 24 Observers:
 
There are 56 types of scorpions in Iran, five of which are dangerous to humans. The poachers don’t care what type they capture, since this whole business is a scam. In the regions where they operate, their poaching decreases the scorpion population significantly. The situation is getting alarming in Khuzestan and Khorasan provinces.

Scorpions play an important role in controlling the insect population, including insects that farmers consider to be pests. Without natural enemies, pests will attack crops. Scorpions are also an important part of the food chain, feeding other animals like rodents. When poachers take scorpions off the menu, they put many other animals at risk, too.


Liquid gold – that nobody wants


Scorpion’s venom has been marketed by training centres as liquid gold. And it’s true that scorpion’s venom is expensive: Latoxan, a French laboratory that is world-renowned, sells it for €118 per microgram (one-millionth of a gram). The problem is that training centres claim venom can easily be sold to international pharmaceutical companies and scientific researchers, but in reality, there is no market for venom sold by amateur scorpion farmers.

Mohammad Fallah found this out the hard way. He is a young Iranian who started a scorpion farm a year ago.
 
I have about 3,000 scorpions: I bought half of them, and bred the other half. I’ve spent about 30 million Tomans on this farm [about €1,800; Iran’s minimum wage is approximately €950 per year].

I learned everything I know about scorpion farming from the internet – how to raise them, how to feed them, how to milk the venom and store it in the correct way. This means that once I milk the venom, I put it in a liquid hydrogen tank so that it doesn’t go bad and then take it to a medical laboratory to have it freeze-dried. The lab also analyses it and gives me a document with the results [of basic tests like scorpion type and purity].


A scorpion farmer posted this photo on Instagram showing his farm in Arak, central Iran.

 
I have made about two grams of venom so far, but the problem is that nobody wants to buy it. I’ve sent so many messages to international laboratories and pharmaceutical companies. In most cases they do not answer, and when they do, they say that they don’t need it.

I’ve put up many ads on B2B sites, and I have tried to sell the venom inside Iran, too. But nobody is interested, and I really don’t know why.

My situation is becoming difficult, so I am considering my options. If nothing changes, I will release some of the scorpions into nature, and sell the rest to anyone who might want them.


A miniscule market


To find out why Fallah and many others in his situation are having such a tough time finding buyers, we turned to two of the most well-known producers of snake and scorpion venom in the world: Latoxan in France and Venomtech in the United Kingdom. Their customers use the venom to manufacture antidotes to scorpion bites or for scientific research into drugs to fight cancer, inflammatory diseases and arthritis.

Hughes Baeza, a sales engineer at Latoxan, explains:
 
For a while now, we’ve been receiving messages from people in different countries – but mostly Iran – via email and through our Facebook page. They try to sell us scorpion’s venom, and our answer is always 'no'.

It’s clear they don’t know what they’re talking about when they describe their product simply as “scorpion’s venom”. What kind of scorpion? What are the venom’s main features? Which molecular weight? Which purity? Which biological activity? They don’t know all of this information because they don’t have the adequate technology to find out. But nobody will buy venom without knowing these details, and in any case they’ll want to buy it from a reliable laboratory, not from amateurs. It’s hard to believe that any amateur would be able to make a standard product of the high quality needed by companies and researchers.

So that’s the first problem; the second is that all the scorpion venom consumption in the world is not nearly as high as these people seem to think. Some researchers don’t even buy venom from us, because they prefer to use their own scorpions and milk the venom themselves. There are already enough reliable laboratories in the world to produce all the needed venom.

Steven Trim, managing director of Venomtech in the UK, told the France 24 Observers team that his company sells less than one gram of scorpion venom per year. (That’s less than half of Fallah’s production). He explained:
 
Most of our clients ask only for a few dozen micrograms. We get messages from people from many countries, especially from Iran; when they claim they have 500 grams of venom to sell, this shows they really have no clue about the market for venom.


False advertising

While there is no law in Iran against teaching people how to raise scorpions, our investigation shows that training centres are lying to the people who sign up for their classes by claiming they will easily be able to earn money.
One company called Iran Scorpion School runs at least nine centres in cities all over Iran. For two days of training, students pay 600,000 Tomans (€35).

One of our journalists called the Iran Scorpion School, posing as someone interested in getting into the scorpion venom business. He was told that he needed between eight and 10 million Tomans (between €470 and €588) to buy 1,000 scorpions, which the school would sell him. He was also told that he would make this money back within a year. When he asked, “Is it true that nobody buys the venom?”, the Iran Scorpion School representative replied that the school itself buys venom for 30 to 90 million Toman per gram (between €1,760 and €5,290), and then resells it to international companies.

Screengrab from the Iran Scorpion School's website. Translation of the parts highlighted in red: "Scorpion venom is very expensive in the international market, prices vary between 60 to 90 million Tomans per gram [€3529-5294]. Trade in this market is in cash and this market has very strong capacity [...] We will will give you support until you make back your investment."

The next day, the journalist called back, and this time asked to interview the manager. At first, the Iran Scorpion School’s manager, Zahra Sohrabi, repeated the claim that her company buys scorpion venom. When asked for proof, she admitted that they had not yet bought any venom, “because venom produced in Iran is not of high enough quality”.

The Iran Scorpion School claims on its website that it “collaborates” with international venom producers like France’s Latoxan and the United Kingdom’s Venomtech. However, both of these companies told the France 24 Observers that they have no relationship with the Iran Scorpion School, which they had never heard about before, nor to any other Iranian company.

When confronted with this information, Sohrabi replied that the Iran Scorpion School works with Latoxan and Venomtech indirectly, through companies in the United Arab Emirates. However, Latoxan and Venomtech said they never buy venom from any third parties.

Screen grabs from the Iran Scorpion School site. Circled in red are claims that the school cooperates with international laboratories and pharmaceutical companies. 

Fighting the fraudsters

So far, it appears that the only people who have run into trouble with the law are the victims of these scams. Recently, the police intervened in several cases where scorpions were being raised in urban areas. In one case, police arrested a man in the northeastern city of Mashhad who had 12,000 scorpions in his apartment. In another headline-grabbing case, police arrested a man transporting 2,000 scorpions on a bus after one got loose and stung a child.

A video report by state media showing the arrest of a man in Mashhad who had 12,000 scoprions in his apartment. 

While it’s impossible to know the number of people who have been duped into launching scorpion farms, some Iranian media outlets have claimed that as many as 50,000 people have participated in trainings.

Officials have begun to take note of the problem. Alireza Naderi, an entomologist for the Department of the Environment, says at least 45 people have filed complaints with the police over these training centres, though it is as of yet unclear what repercussions this will have.

Naderi explains:
 
We’ve seen get-rich-quick scams before where charlatans tricked people into raising leeches [to sell to doctors], but this scorpion swindle is far more lucrative. They’re making fortunes. Unfortunately, the victims do not stop to think, ‘If scorpion venom is really so lucrative, why don’t these trainers keep the money for themselves?’ Who sells pickaxes next to a mountain of gold? So we are now working to fill the gaps in the law to cover these types of fraud.

Naderi said his department is the only government body that can issue authorisations for farms to raise scorpions, and so far, they have only given permission to one farm. That farm’s purpose is not to harvest venom, but to repopulate the five types of scorpions that are now being poached so heavily that their populations are at risk.


Article was written by Ershad Alijani.