Inside the Market of Miracle Lizard Oil That Claims to Give Long Hard Erections

Male performance-enhancing lizard oils tap into a market void in Pakistan that exists between traditional lore and very real viagra bans.

Feb 18 2022, 11:42am

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – On a grimy pavement, a man squats in front of a tiny pan on a stove. The pungent aroma of sizzling fat diffuses through the air as he deftly adds a pinch of herbs into the golden rust-colored mixture. Neatly positioned next to him is a bizarre assembly line of ingredients: saffron, cinnamon and a group of kitten-sized lizards.

The man, Muhammad Nasir, is a vendor of lizard oil, a topically applied ointment used to “treat” erectile dysfunction in Pakistan – a sort of liquid Viagra. He has been selling the oil in Rawalpindi city’s historic Raja Bazar marketplace for five years. The oil, locally known as “sanda tael”, is extracted from the roasted fat of Indian spiny-tailed lizards and is sold by indigenous healers and street peddlers.

“This lizard oil is massaged onto the penis. It’s a cure for male impotence and makes the penis long, thick and hard. It gives strong sustained erections and also prevents premature ejaculation,” Nasir told VICE World News. As Nasir prepares the brew, a small crowd of men congregate around him. Some snicker and crack dirty jokes. Their bravado, however, does little to mask genuine curiosity. 

Muhammad Nasir prepares a small order of lizard oil for a customer for Rs. 300 ($1.7) at Rawalpindi city's Raja Bazar marketplace on Feb. 15, 2022. Photo: Rimal Farrukh

“Almost 60 percent of my patients have wrongly tried such quack medications,” Islamabad-based urologist Dr. Asim Khan told VICE World News.

Demand for the oil is high in Pakistan, where Viagra is banned and social taboos prevent many from seeking out medical treatment for erectile dysfunction. Efforts to register Viagra were cut short by objecting legal and religious affairs ministries that said it was against the cultural values of the country. Although traditional recipes for the oils have been passed down from generations, the ban offers healers and vendors fertile space to capitalise on very real needs.  

In Pakistan, a hierarchical supply chain made up of poachers, sellers and healers profit from men desperate for hard solutions. Aside from male impotence, healers and sellers claim that their concoctions can also be used for penis enlargement, male infertility and joint pain. 

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“Almost 60 percent of my patients have wrongly tried such quack medications,” Islamabad-based urologist Dr. Asim Khan told VICE World News.

The lizards used to make the oils are classified as “vulnerable” or threatened with global extinction in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. In a cruel practice, poachers break the lizards' backs to prevent them from escaping. While still alive, they are disembowelled, and strips of their fat are used to cook the oil. The oils also contain herbal cocktails of ginseng, dried ginger, saffron, cinnamon and wild rue. Occasionally, deer musk, an extract from the caudal glands between an endangered musk deer’s navel and genitals, is also added. 

Lizard oil seller Muhammad Nasir sits next to his ingredients for the oil which included Indian-spiny tailed lizards, a protected species. Photo: Photo: Rimal Farrukh

Rana Fareed is a Wazirabad city-based hakeem or indigenous healer who has been selling the “miracle” oils for 18 years at his herbal dispensary and matab or clinic. Fareed’s marketing brochures consist of images that emphasise the phallic shapes of the lizard, snakes and other reptiles. 

“My clients come from all over Pakistan. They even come from other countries like Canada, the United States, Spain and England. They all hear about the products from word of mouth through their Pakistani relatives,” Fareed told VICE World News. 

Hafiz, one of Fareed’s clients in Wazirabad, has been using the product for five years. Hafiz asked to be referred to only by his first name because of the sensitivity of the subject. “Before I started using it, my wife and I had been trying [with difficulty] to conceive because I would not be able to maintain erections long enough during sex,” Hafiz told VICE World News.

“I have paid a lot of money for it over the years, but it has been worth it because now I have a baby boy.” 

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However, doctors aren’t convinced.

They are critical of the oil’s “miracle cure” due to a dearth of research on its efficacy and safe use. 

“This is an era of evidence-based medicines. We need to properly research medications before they are sold in the markets,” said Dr. Khan. “The problem with these treatments is that we do not have much data. Suppose they sell this oil to 500 people in a given time: What happens to them after a month? How are their kidney functions? What effect does it have on the liver? We just don't know.” 

Reasons for erectile dysfunction are complex and varied. They can be attributed to a host of biological, psychological and lifestyle factors. Hormonal disorders, poor cardiovascular health and sedentary habits have been linked to its prevalence. 

“Unless and until you identify the root cause of the problem, it is very difficult to address it permanently. If a male is suffering from erectile dysfunction or premature ejactulation, there are some herbal medications and quack ‘treatments’ that may temporarily relieve symptoms. But unless and until we do blood, hormone tests and an ultrasound, we cannot treat these issues,” said Khan. 

Erectile dysfunction is widely underreported in Pakistan. An old study conducted in 2003 reported an 80.8 percent erectile dysfunction rate among men attending primary care clinics in the country. A study published last year that examined patients in Karachi city demonstrated a considerably lower 21 percent erectile dysfunction rate among 450 patients in a local hospital. 

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Even with those varying statistics, the sale of mainstream sexual enhancement drugs like Viagra is the “leading catch” for raids conducted by the country’s Federal Investigative Agency. Despite their attempts at cracking down on the banned drug, Viagra is still widely available for purchase online and in local drug stores across the country. 

But it seems the sanda or lizard oils are tapping into a void in the market that exists between traditional lore and very real bans.

“In constructions of male sexuality even in marriage relationships, we often find the idea of 'winning over' or 'conquering' the female partner,” said Rawalpindi-based anthropology professor Abdul Qadar. “Under these male representations of sexuality, people believe that they need help enhancing their sexual power.”

And that’s the kind of mindset many turn to the lizard oils with. The hakeem Fareed said lizard oils appeal to all ages and even young men who wish to increase their sexual peformance to impress their wives or partners. He is regularly approached by young unmarried men suffering from performance anxiety prior to their wedding nights. 

“They worry about their sexual timing as they ejaculate too soon during masturbation and are scared that they will be unable to satisfy a woman,” said Fareed. 

The desperation and demand for performance enhancement support is seen across socio-economic classes and literacy levels.

According to sex therapist and clinical psychologist Tahira Rubab, many men are overcome with anxieties about perceived emasculation when they inadequate under society’s idea of male sexual prowess.

Spiny-tailed lizards which are used to make the oils are classified as “vulnerable” or threatened with global extinction in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The animals are immobile as their backs have been broken to prevent them from escaping during capture. Photo: Rimal Farrukh

“Society tells men that if they cannot perform sexually, they are no longer men. This pressure usually does not come from their sexual partner but from society. It ultimately makes men self-conscious and feeds into a cycle of psychologically sourced impotence,” Rubab told VICE World News. 

The desperation and demand for performance enhancement support is seen across socio-economic classes and literacy levels. “It's not a matter of literacy but of a lack of public awareness. Once, I received a patient who was a grade 20th civil officer from Islamabad and some hakeem sold him treatment for 45,000 Rs. ($256),” said Dr. Khan. 

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The sale of lizard oils is largely unregulated in Pakistan despite attempts at monitoring alternative and folk medicine by the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan and by various national councils for traditional medicine. 

This leads to wide price variances based on quantity and the type of supplier. 

Street peddlers sell a small vial of lizard oil for as little as Rs. 300 ($1.70) and a larger bottle for around Rs. 2,000 ($11.40). Hakeems or indigenous healers, often the first point of contact for medical treatments in rural and tribal communities, tend to overcharge clients, selling bottles for Rs. 10,000 ($56) or higher.

Despite the blatant rip-offs, loyal customers prefer the product as a cheap alternative to costly medical treatments and illegally imported Viagra. Customers retain extensive bargaining power with footpath sellers, especially longtime clients of traditional healers. 

“They have friendly and informal relationships with hakeems where they can even ask for medicines without paying for a period of four months. This makes the idea of bargaining easier and inspires confidence in the customer,” said Qadar, the anthropologist.  

The lizards are largely found in Pakistan’s desert areas. Despite increased raids and arrests of poachers in the last few years, they continue to be captured and sold to healers and street vendors to meet the massive demand for the “masculinity” oils. 

“Until and unless the demand for the oils subsides, the poaching situation will continue to persist,” Sindh Wildlife Department conservator Javed Ahmed Maher told VICE World News.

With drug regulators and police doing little to disrupt the market, Pakistan’s wildlife authorities seem to be the only ones stepping in. 

“Police do not bother us at all. It is only the wildlife department that goes after us when we catch the lizards,” said Nasir who, along with selling the oils, also hunts lizards with his brother. “I have gotten fined by them on multiple occasions, but I cannot stop because this is my livelihood.” Nasir then produces a Rs. 10,000 ($56) receipt fine from the Punjab Wildlife Department from his wallet. 

Captured lizards are supplied across the country most commonly in the Punjab province, which wildlife officials call the “hub” of the sanda oil trade. Across five raids conducted as of October of last year, wildlife officials recovered around 978 lizards from poachers from the Sindh province. In 2020, around 2,500 lizards were recovered from the Karachi and Thatta city suburbs in Sindh. Unfortunately, once the lizard's backs have been broken after capture, they have little chance of surviving in the wild. 

“Until and unless the demand for the oils subsides, the poaching situation will continue to persist,” Sindh Wildlife Department conservator Javed Ahmed Maher told VICE World News. 

“Most of the poachers hail from extremely poor nomadic communities. It is unfortunate that they haven't been provided with better avenues for their economic betterment, and that they are out here catching these helpless innocent creatures.”

Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.

Tagged:

Sexuality, Πακιστάν, WILDLIFE, viagra, erectile dysfunction, animal abuse, lizards, south asia, worldnews

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