Turkish man breeds deadly scorpions to save others

Turkey’s southeastern province of Şanlıurfa is known for many things – as the home of great Arabesque singers, mouth-watering local cuisine and breathtaking historic sites – but one of its inhabitants is far less welcome for visitors.

The Androctonus Crassicauda, or fat-tailed scorpion, has left such an impression on the historic peoples who have made Şanlıurfa their home that figurines of the arachnid were the most common objects found in the nearby 12,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe archaeological site, thought to be the oldest temples in the world.

The fat-tailed scorpion is rightly feared for its highly toxic poison, which is among the deadliest of any scorpion – the Latin name is derived from Greek that literally means “man-killer”. Yet this venom has another unique characteristic that sets it apart; it can be used not only to create antidotes for stings by other species of scorpion, but also in cancer research and the production of medicine. 

Ali Yılmaz lives in the village of Kısas, just outside Şanlıurfa, where he has raised scorpions for 35 years, breeding thousands of them in the basement of a house in glass cases arranged in rows on shelves against the walls. 

Yılmaz began trapping and selling scorpions when he was just five or six years old. Naturally this line of work has its dangers, and Yılmaz has suffered many stings, the first when he was just 12.

Scorpion breeding Şanlıurfa, Turkey.
Scorpion breeding Şanlıurfa, Turkey.

“When that first scorpion stung me, I thought I’d die,” he said. “My body just completely stopped working. I was far from home so I went into a house near the entrance to the village. There was an old woman there sewing a quilt, she took her needle and pierced the finger the scorpion had stung over and over. That finger had me in agony for days.”

But over time, after more stings, Yılmaz began to build up resistance to the venom. The Health Ministry at one point even asked him for blood samples, but he refused, and maintains the best defence against the potentially lethal scorpion venom is to carefully avoid being stung.

After years of trapping and selling the creatures, Yılmaz’s interest in them eventually led him to open his own breeding facility so the venom could be used to produce antidotes for scorpion stings, and especially in medical research.

“I feel as happy and proud as I would if I were an inventor, because we’re doing work that benefits humanity,” Yılmaz said.