Venom experts, however, have raised doubts about some of the claims – especially surrounding the substance’s supposed use as a rave drug.
Indian Border Security Force (BSF) officers arrested a man in the eastern border state of West Bengal on Thursday after recovering about 2kg of snake venom, worth some 120 million Indian rupees (US$1.4 million), from his home in South Dinajpur district.
They had acted on a tip-off about a local man “hiding a jar of snake venom”, Surjeet Singh Guleria, inspector general of operations at BSF Eastern Command, told this Week in Asia, adding that the substance had been sent for forensic tests and would be produced in court as evidence.
Criminals are increasingly taking advantage of the “porous” Indo-Bangladesh border to smuggle venom in various forms – including liquid, powder and gelatin – to China, Guleria said. According to BSF figures, more than 17.7kg of snake venom worth 1.65 billion Indian rupees was recovered from the border region between 2017 and last year.
When seized, the substance in some cases has often been found in crystal jars carrying “Made in France” labels, leading BSF officials to suspect it may have originated in Europe.
In one instance from 2022, a jar was found with a tag stating “Cobra SP, Red Dragon, Made in France Code No: 6097” written on a yellow metal plate.
But while it may be easier to smuggle venom than some other goods, it is unlikely that traffickers are importing it from France, according to Nathan Dunstan, general manager at Venom Supplies in Australia, which conducts venom research and produces venom and venom antibodies.
“Cobras are found across the Indian-Bangladesh-China region and I would think it would be more likely that the venom originated in this area,” he said.
Kartik Sunagar, an evolutionary biologist and professor at the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science’s Evolutionary Venomics Lab, also expressed doubts about the amount of snake venom that had been seized, saying such “bold” claims require “scientific validation”.
Seized samples from various parts of the country sent for testing at his laboratory between 2018 and 2020 were found to not contain venom but other generic chemicals, Sunagar told This Week In Asia.
Although border police may claim to have seized several litres of snake venom at a time, he said that realistically speaking, only trace amounts of venom were likely to be present – if at all.
Sunagar, whose team has been collecting snake venom from different parts of the Indian subcontinent to be used in scientific research for seven years now, said an individual snake would only produce a few hundred milligrams of venom when ‘milked’.
Four grams of venom from four of India’s most abundant snake species – cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and the saw-scaled viper – can be bought for around 400,000 rupees from a Tamil Nadu-based cooperative of poisonous snake catchers, he said.
Mysore-based herpetologist Romulus Whitaker said venom is primarily made up of protein and starts degrading almost as soon as it is extracted from a snake, so any bottles of “liquid venom” would be totally useless by the time they were seized – if indeed they actually contained any at all.
BSF’s Guleria insisted that the venom seized by border forces came from snakes and was “not artificiality generated” or composed of other chemicals. It always undergoes forensic examination by the forestry department, he said.
The border police also claim that snake venom is being used as an aphrodisiac at rave parties within India.
Indian YouTuber Elvish Yadav was arrested last year on suspicion of selling snake venom at raves in the northern Indian city Noida.
A 2019 study titled “Snake Venom Use as a Substitute for Opioids: A Case Report and Review of Literature” published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that people have occasionally been found to use snake venom as a “substitute” for opioids or as an agent to get high.
Another study published in 2022 by the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology contained references to recreational users slapping snakes on the back of the heads with a blunt object to cause them to bite an exposed finger or toe.
However, herpetologist Whitaker said it was “absolute nonsense” that snake venom was being used at rave parties, while biologist Sunagar said such recreational use was impracticable due to the obvious harm the venom can cause.