Meet Thailand’s fearless scorpion hunters who feed demand from villagers and selfie-loving tourists
- In northeast Thailand, scorpions are regarded as a delicacy. The arachnids are viewed as both food and medicine
- To help meet growing demand from restaurants and street vendors, one man has decided to start breeding scorpions
Crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo worms and giant water bugs are among the most popular deep-fried creepy-crawlies that bemuse foreign tourists at markets in the Thai capital, Bangkok. However the most exotic and impressive creature, beloved by the adventurous selfie taker, is the large black scorpion.
It takes a braver man to catch them, though.
To an untrained eye, the patch of earth that Somporn Saisuwan selects for closer inspection in a wooded area in northeastern Thailand’s Surin province may appear nothing out of the ordinary. A carpet of dry leaves and clumps of ferns cover the ground on slightly sloping terrain. But it’s a rotting log that catches Somporn’s eye.
He turns it over to see what creatures could be lurking beneath.
“You might find scorpions clinging to the underside of a log,” the villager explains. “If you don’t, you should look for small holes in the ground.”
If a hole is round, it’s advisable to move along, because a snake might be coiled up inside. If the opening has a flatter elongated shape, though, the inhabitant could be a giant Asian forest scorpion, a forbidding arachnid that often burrows into the ground during the dry season.
Somporn reaches for his digging stick and starts poking around in the earth by the roots of a small tree. Eventually he uncovers a large scorpion caked in dirt. It is a fully grown 15cm specimen with a black exoskeleton and massive pincers.
The creature tries to scurry away. When it’s prevented from doing so, it raises its tail menacingly.
Despite its formidable size, the predator that Somporn has caught packs a relatively mild punch in its stinger. The Asian forest scorpion’s venom can cause pain and swelling, but it is hardly ever lethal to humans. In rare cases, however, recipients of its fury may suffer a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Somporn has been stung on his thick calloused hands by scorpions repeatedly over the years, but he’s been none the worse for it.
“It’s like getting stung by a bee or wasp,” he says nonchalantly.
He gently grabs the cornered scorpion by its tail, holding it between a thumb and forefinger, and drops it into a plastic bucket. One scorpion down, plenty more to go.
“They like to hide in dark, cooler places,” Somporn says. “So we [will] go and look for them there.”
Rice paddies are also good places to go in search of scorpions because the carnivorous creatures like to lurk around water sources, where they prey on worms, insects and small lizards. They are also in a habitat in which they themselves can wind up becoming easy prey for local farmers, who regard the arachnids as a delicacy.
In times past, when food was scarce in rural Thailand, impoverished locals feasted on anything they could lay their hands on, including grubs, worms and insects. Yet even then, the big black scorpions had a special place in their diet.
“We regard scorpions as both food and medicine,” says Theerapat Sutthisan, a resident of the northeastern province of Udon Thani. “My grandparents used to tell us that eating scorpions would make us stronger and live longer,” the villager recalls.
“Scorpions are delicious when eaten fried or roasted with spicy banana blossom salad,” Theerapat adds. “You can also drown them in a glass of whiskey or rice wine and consume them soaked in alcohol.”
During the rainy season the scorpions often seek refuge from frequent flash floods in people’s homes, hiding in nooks and crannies – and shoes. That doesn’t faze most Thai country folk.
“They’re more afraid of us than we’re afraid of them,” says Asamaporn Ketchum, a policewoman in the same province. “I love to eat them because they’re crunchy and full of protein,” she adds, cheerfully mimicking the act of munching on the arachnids. “But they’re quite rare these days and cost a lot to buy at the market, so they’re like a treat.”
Scorpions may not be rare treats for long, though. Thanks to enterprising locals like Danai Siriburee, the arachnids are becoming a more regular staple on menus around Thailand, along with the more commonly consumed creepy-crawlies.
Danai, who is a lecturer in agribusiness at Udon Thani Rajabhat University, didn’t think much of scorpions until, during a visit to the south of Thailand a few years ago, he saw them peddled on a food vendor’s pushcart for 100 baht (US$3) apiece.
“I figured selling scorpions could be good business,” he recalls.
He started frequenting villages in Udon Thani and telling locals he would buy all the scorpions they could find. The bigger the scorpions were, the more he would pay for them.
He now collects about 2,000 scorpions a month for resale. In late summer, when their breeding season causes the nocturnal creatures to come crawling around out in the open in search of mates, he manages to source two to three times as many.
Even so, demand still outstrips supply with orders for his scorpions coming from as far away as the resort island of Phuket, 1,400km away.
“I can never have enough of them,” Danai says. “Some restaurants and insect vendors want to buy my scorpions all at once.”
To help meet growing demand, Danai has decided to start breeding scorpions. At his scorpion farm on the outskirts of the provincial capital, also called Udon Thani, the university lecturer raises the arachnids in cement rings that are furnished with pieces of wood and tufts of hay.
“There are no books on how to do this,” he explains. “I’ve had to learn from my mistakes.”
Some of the wild scorpions Danai caught to breed in captivity perished when they drowned in trays that he had filled with too much water for them to drink. The carnivorous arachnids, he discovered, can also take to cannibalising one another. Scorpion mothers that give birth to live young, of up to 20 babies at a time, may decide to devour their own offspring. That’s bad for business.
“The benefit of this venture is that you can have scorpions all year round,” he says.
A stocky man with close-cropped black hair and thick horn-rimmed spectacles, Danai is almost obsessive when it comes to scorpions, despite professing not even to like them that much.
At home he keeps a menagerie of arachnids belonging to numerous species from around the world. His exotic acquisitions include highly venomous deathstalkers from the deserts of North Africa, whose stingers are loaded with potent neurotoxins and could easily put his life in danger.
“Whenever I leave home, I can safely leave the doors unlocked,” Danai says. “People know I keep dangerous creatures around the house, so no one will enter.”
On the downside, he’s found it hard to recruit a housekeeper.
Potentially further spooking unwary visitors is the fact that his scorpions, which naturally possess fluorescing pigments, glow with an eerie greenish blue in the moonlight. In a country where a fear of ghosts and phantasms is deeply ingrained, many locals might find this natural phenomenon unsettling.
Occasionally Danai sets some of his pet arachnids loose around the house to keep certain intruders out – small geckos.
“I’m terrified of geckos,” he explains. “I can’t stand them. Once one of them got inside my shirt and started crawling on my back. I freaked out.”
He receives a call on his phone. An insect vendor who plies his trade in a popular tourist area of Bangkok wants extra-large scorpions because his foreign customers like buying them stir-fried to pose for selfies with them.
Before long he receives another order, this time from a restaurateur catering to Chinese tourists, many of whom ascribe curative and aphrodisiacal properties to scorpions.
It is widely believed that consuming scorpions with their tails raised has libido-boosting properties, like Viagra.
Danai dismisses that notion, however. “I’ve tried it,” he says. “It doesn’t work.”