Thatta, Pakistan – Sitting in a dimly lit real estate office in a remote area of Pakistan’s Sindh province, Naveed Gauri Khan waited for the scorpion broker he had been in correspondence with all week.
Khan, who claimed to be a frontman for a Swedish pharmaceutical firm, is among hundreds of others in the South Asian country involved in the lucrative scorpion trade.
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The scorpions are in great demand apparently for medical research, and according to Khan a black scorpion weighing 60 grams can fetch at least $50,000.
Khan’s phone rang constantly, but he ignored all the calls. Later, he told Al Jazeera that the phone calls were from middlemen offering him bribes to buy the invertebrate.
When the broker finally arrived, three hours late, he was empty-handed. Brokers and buyers involved in Sindh’s scorpion trade complain that this is often the case.
“Although the trade is legal, hunters and brokers are afraid of security agencies,” Khan told Al Jazeera. “They don’t show the scorpion until they trust the buyer.”
Local newspapers have recently carried stories describing the trade as illegal, discouraging open trading.
Nawab Muhammad Yusuf Talpur, a member of the National Assembly elected from Sindh, told Al Jazeera that although there is no legislation against the trade, regulations consider trading wildlife caught and moved from its natural habitat to be unacceptable.
The wildlife department, however, told Al Jazeera that there was no official law prohibiting Sindh’s scorpion trade.
“Since there’s no law prohibiting the trade and deals are apparently very profitable, why wouldn’t more people get involved in this?” Javed Mehar, the head of the Sindh Wildlife Fund, told Al Jazeera.
Shahid and Sohail, two friends who grew up together in a housing colony in Sindh province’s Thatta district, have never been scared of the scorpion’s venomous sting.
“As teenagers, we caught and killed scorpions as a game,” Sohail told Al Jazeera. “Last year we found out that if we caught a live one, we could be instant millionaires.”
|Pannu, a snake-charmer said that he has been catching snakes and scorpions for his entire life but has never seen a scorpion heavier than 16 grams [Maham Javaid/ Al Jazeera]
On the hottest nights of the year, these hunters search for the nocturnal creatures in the 200-hectare dry forest behind their colony. Scorpions hibernate in cold weather, so Sohail says it is easier to catch them when it’s hot.
Their broker, Faraz, is constantly in contact with other brokers who can sell the scorpion to foreign companies for thousands of dollars.
“I spend all my spare time connecting scorpion buyers with sellers,” Faraz, who also works at Karachi Port Trust, told Al Jazeera. “When a big deal goes through, it will be like winning the lottery.”
In the past year Faraz has only earned about $2,000 by selling tiny scorpions in bulk, but he remains optimistic.
He said that since the business is still relatively new, there are risks involved, which is why sellers often show up empty-handed.
“Until brokers are satisfied with the buyer’s paperwork and the seller’s item, neither the money nor the scorpion is brought forth,” said Faraz. “This is why a great many deals fall apart.”
Scorpion hunters and brokers told Al Jazeera that the trade also involved the risk of abduction. Buyers and middlemen receive calls requesting them to arrive at a specific location to purchase scorpions, but this can be a ruse for kidnapping.
Arrest by the police is another risk. Jamal Akhtar, a Thatta-based broker, told Al Jazeera that in August he was travelling to Karachi when the police stopped him and found two 70-gram scorpions in a container in his car. Akhtar was not charged, but he was held overnight at Makli’s police station. His scorpions, however, were not returned to him.
“People will laugh at me if I register a case about missing scorpions,” Akhtar told Al Jazeera. “Secondly, who can register a case about stealing against the police?”
Officials at Makli police station deny the incident took place.
After a week of negotiations, Khan finally saw the 60-gram scorpion.
For this particular deal, the brokers had decided in advance that they would split the profit evenly among themselves. This meant that Khan would be paying five brokers, as well as the landlord who was the actual owner of the scorpion.
In recent years, landlords in Thatta and surrounding areas employ poor farmers to hunt for the scorpions. When farmers find a scorpion weighing above 40 grams, they are given approximately $100. The landlord then takes ownership of the scorpion and contacts brokers. As the number of brokers increases, the final price of the scorpion also increases.
Hunters and brokers told Al Jazeera that politicians are also heavily invested in the trade. “Anyone who has money to spare has invested in hunting for scorpions,” Sohail told Al Jazeera.
Mir Aamir Ali Khan Magsi, a member of the National Assembly representing the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party in Sindh, told Al Jazeera that while he is not involved, he is aware that there is a great demand for black scorpions across Sindh. “There have been rumours of Chinese buyers who came in search of the scorpions,” said Magsi.
Sohail, however, said sellers prefer not to deal with Chinese buyers because they do not match the rates offered by American, Australian and Swedish buyers.
The weight of the scorpion matters because, according to Khan, those weighing more than 40 grams have a longer life expectancy.
Khan discounts rumours about the scorpions being bought as a delicacy – or, according to some ludicrous rumours, to create explosives.
Sceptical amid security concerns
One concern about Sindh’s scorpion trade is regarding the payments. Given Sindh’s deplorable security situation, sceptics ask how buyers make such large payments.
Last year we found out that if we caught a live one, we could be instant millionaires
In Khan’s case, the problem isn’t too grave. He told Al Jazeera that he brought the money into the country through the State Bank of Pakistan. The actual exchange took place within the parking lot of a Thatta branch of the National Bank of Pakistan.
“Although the National Bank was not involved in our transaction, we used their premises for increased security,” said Khan. “The money was delivered from Karachi in an armoured Brinks vehicle.”
Pannu, a snake-charmer based in Thatta, told Al Jazeera that he has been catching snakes and scorpions for his entire life but has never seen a scorpion heavier than 16 grams.
He does, however, admit that he has sold scorpions to Australians. “Depending on the colour, you can make up to $5,000 for a bag of scorpions weighing a kilogram,” Pannu told Al Jazeera.
He is aware of the impact this hunting has on Sindh’s ecosystem. “Scorpions are used to feed gecko lizards, which in turn are eaten by the snakes,” said Pannu. “So if we capture too many scorpions, we are indirectly endangering the snakes.”
But Pannu added that if the government isn’t making an effort to protect these species, he sees no reason for himself to sacrifice an opportunity to make some easy money.
Follow Maham Javaid on Twitter: @JMaham