At least 69 people have died and 169 remain hospitalized in the Tete province of Mozambique after drinking tainted phombe, a local homebrew beer, at a funeral in the town of Songo on Saturday. According to local director of Health, Women, and Social Action Paula Bernardo, the victims' symptoms included diarrhea and muscle aches. While that's not much to go on, officials are already speculating that the 210 liter drum of booze was spiked with crocodile bile, locally feared as a potent poison whose actual toxicity is highly questionable.
The Mozambique government on Sunday declared three days of national mourning for the victims, while local actors have taken up a clothes and food drive for victims and their families. But exactly what the hell happened, as well as who is responsible, is still unclear. The woman who brewed the hot batch of phombe is among the dead, as are several members of her family, meaning it's unlikely she had anything to do with it. Beer and blood samples have been sent to the capital of Maputo and South Africa for laboratory analysis, as no equipment was available to examine the substance in Tete.
While it might not be the most likely culprit, crocodile bile is by far the most intriguing suspect for the deaths. Extracted from the gall bladder of a slaughtered crocodile and rendered into a powder, it is a notorious ingredient in traditional poisons throughout Africa. In 1996's African Ethnobotnay: Poisons and Drugs, Dr. Hans Dieter Neuwinger writes about traditional uses of the bile, mixed with other allegedly toxic substances, in arrow-tips and other poisons in Ghana, Liberia, and Togo in West Africa, and throughout the African Great Lakes region (including Mozambique and Zimbabwe).
"It is widely believed that bile from the gall bladder of a crocodile is very poisonous," writes Neuwinger in African Ethnobotany. "Thus in several African countries, it is added to beer or porridge of an unsuspecting person, the victim is supposed to die within 24 hours [sic]."
Belief in the poison remains strong. In 1997, locals blamed the death of Kenyan Police Commissioner Philip Kilonzo on crocodile bile, claiming it killed him in seconds and left no traces. In 2012's Encounters with Witchcraft: Field Notes from Africa, Norman N. Miller states that crocodile hunters on Lake Victoria have to burn the animals' organs and throw them into the water to show they did not intend to use or sell bile for witchcraft or poison.
But is it all bullshit? Crocodile bile is also commonly used in Asian medicinal traditions. Chinese herbalists mix the bile powder with other substances to treat asthma by supposedly transforming phlegm, nourishing lung ying, and clearing heat. Thai medicine uses the same substance to treat low immunity and energy, fainting, and vertigo, especially for women after pregnancy. Other animals' bile is likewise commonly consumed in moderate doses with no toxic side effects.
In 1984, N.Z. Nyazema of the University of Zimbabwe took a skeptical look at claims of swift lethality in "Crocodile Bile, A Poison: Myth or Reality," published in the Central African Journal of Medicine. Using ten gall bladders provided by a nearby crocodile farm, he tested moderate concentrations of the substance on several mice and a baboon over a week and found no signs of toxicity, much less death. This has led many to speculate that other substances carry the toxic load in local poisons, while non-toxic crocodile bile gets a bad rap.
But in a highly concentrated dose, bile could indeed be poisonous. Studies more recent than Nyazema's have found toxicity (like liver damage) and death when administering higher concentrations of crocodile bile to animals, suggesting that perhaps his tests just used sub-toxic concentrations to test local traditions that implied one needed only a drop of the stuff to kill a man.
Locals also believe that the bile's toxicity can be activated by interactions with other substances. Miller recounts the story of a Dutch crocodile hunter in the African Great Lakes, Eric van der Whipple, who told him that a London lab tested crocodile bile on its own and found it non-toxic, but when a fisherman mixed it with local plant powders it came back extremely poisonous.
"Apparently the roots combine with the liver and bile to cause a chemical change," van der Whipple told Miller. "It is beyond me, but that's what I understand."
Crocodile expert Paul Moler of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is skeptical of the Mozambique story. "It's hard to imagine why anyone would think it was crocodile bile," Moler told VICE. "Even if croc bile were toxic (which it isn't), you would be hard pressed to get enough to poison that many people."
While finding enough to poison 200 people is unlikely, there is a bunch of crocodile bile in Mozambique. Between 2011 and 2012 the government had to organize a cull of 250 crocodiles after 47 people were killed by the beasts in a year. And near the Cahora Bassa Lake, close to Songo in Tete, there is a large crocodile ranch collecting 50,000 eggs per year and regularly slaughtering animals to export skins, working regularly with locals plying the waterways.
Yet it's probably more likely that some other form of poisoning is to blame. Contamination (accidental or otherwise) of homebrew alcohol is common in Africa, with about 80 killed earlier this year alone in a Kenyan beer poisoning. Crocodile bile gets blamed because of its notoriety in local poison traditions and lore. But before we credit the broad symptoms (possibly made more dire for a lack of local services) to one toxin or another, we'll have to await results from the labs.
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