Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Crocodile bile

In the news recently was the tragic tale of many people killed of hospitalized because of accidental consumption of crocodile bile in beer served after a funeral.

To cite the article in Forbes:
Crocodile bile is literally the digestive juice from the gall bladders of the Nile crocodile, Crocodylus niloticus. Its use traces back to witchcraft accusations in 1899, according to Professor N.Z. Nyazema, in the Department of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Zimbabwe, writing in the Central African Journal of Medicine in 1984 and 1985. The university, in Harare, is about 300 miles southwest across the Mozambique border from where the poisonings occurred.
Bile contains detergent molecules, called bile salts or bile acids, that animals use to dissolve or emulsify fats. They also bind to hormone receptors that regulate their own production. But more simply, bile salts or bile acids could conceivably be quite toxic in very high concentrations, as would any strong detergent. However, this isn’t consistent with the amounts allegedly used in traditional poisoning cases.
Professor Nyzema explains,
It is widely believed that the bile from the gall bladder of a crocodile is very poisonous. The bile nduru is used as poison which is added to beer or stiff porridge, sadza, of an unsuspecting victim. It is not easy to buy this poison neither is it easy for anyone to kill a crocodile solely for the purpose of obtaining the bile. But with a good fee one can obtain some of the poison from a special n’anga [a traditional healer of the Zimbabwean Shona tribe]. At times the n’anga may undertake to poison the victim thus adding mystery to the ingredients of the poison. It is reported that the poisoning occurs at special occasions like beer drinking: The nduru is said to be introduced into the beer by dipping the finger or nail where a small amount is placed: This will suffice for the purpose. The unfortunate victim is supposed to die within 24 hours. The poison is supposed to manifest itself when the patient develops pains mainly in the abdomen. 
However, as the article discusses, there is not enough poison in the crocodile bile itself to kill or even injure. Rather, it seems that it is one of the other ingredients in the crocodile bile concoction that kills.

I would note that many centuries ago, Egyptian doctors were writing about crocodile poison which can can injure someone who touches it even after the crocodile's death. As I discuss here, Rabbenu Bachya on parshat Vaera (who asserts that tzrafdea are crocodiles) cited these doctors and reported this as fact. I fixed up this quote from the Revach site's translation.
"Even to this day... there is an animal called an 'Altimasa' or crocodile that lives in the Nilus. Every now and then it will come out and swallow two or three people in one shot. It cannot be killed with spears or arrows unless it is struck in its stomach. It has a poison that can harm people who touch it even after it is already dead. 
Rabbenu Bachya does not say that the poison is on its body, just that it has a poison which can injure someone who touches the crocodile after death. So this might be a reference to the same.

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