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Hammered by drought, amateur scorpion catcher turns pro

Hammered by drought, amateur scorpion catcher turns pro

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Em Sem can catch more than 100 scorpions per day, netting him more than 30,000 riel.

S corpion hunting cannot be taught, says 55-year old Em Sem, it's something you are born with.

"I have the talent and I dare catch them," said Sem, proving that bravado by lifting handfuls of black scorpions from a plastic bucket with his bare hands.

Sem has been catching scorpions "for enjoyment" since he was a boy and ten years ago began selling them to local buyers. While the scaly arachnids are usually a sideline business for Sem, this year his wet-season rice crop failed due to the drought, making scorpion collecting the sole income for his family of nine.

It's barely enough to survive, but the resourceful grandfather is able to use the dry rice fields around his village as prime hunting grounds.

"At the beginning I was afraid, but now I'm used to it," he said. "I can catch more than a hundred a day."

Commonly found around Sem's home in Dangkor district, about 25 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, the scorpions can be used to make traditional medicine or cooked to eat. Sem says that shallow-fried scorpions are popular among villagers as a snack to eat with palm wine.

"They taste good," said Sem. "We just had some for lunch."

Every part of the scorpion is edible, except for the stinger at the end of the tail. They are generally eaten whole, including the shell, pincers and head. While the gray, paté-like innards are certainly an acquired taste for a Western palate, the legs could be compared with flavored potato crisps. Some say chicken flavor, others barbecue.

Sem has become so well-known for his scorpions that he no longer has to take his wares to the local market - the buyers come to his home in Prey Veng Khang Cheung village.

Live scorpions cost 200 riel each.

"I don't sell them everyday, but customers usually come two or three times a week," he said. "In one week I can earn between 20,000 and 30,000 riel."

Most sales are for food, but some scorpions are crushed into powder and added to rice wine or bottled alive. You Song, a kru khmer, or traditional healer, claims that scorpion wine can cure ailments ranging from arthritis to malaria and even cancer.

Providing the raw ingredients for these traditional medicines remains a niche market for Sem, mostly due to the threat of being stung. Although a strike from the species Sem catches is not fatal, it will cause severe localized pain for several hours. He doesn't know of any treatment for stings, but said his skill at catching them means nowadays he is rarely injured.

The safest way to pick them up, Sem explains, is to approach from behind and grab the tail between the index finder and thumb. Any contact to the head, back or pincers will trigger a lightning-fast tail-strike.

"They burrow like crabs," said Sem. After he finds the telltale holes, he uses a long metal rod to dig them out.

Scorpion hunting looks set to continue in Sem's family, as his 5-year-old grandson, Sem Ratana, is taking a keen interest. Although he does not yet venture out into the fields with his grandfather, Ratana plays fearlessly with the catch when Sem brings a bucketful home, and lets them crawl over his hands and arms.

Recently, Ratana made his first solo field capture of the menacing looking critters.

"I'm not afraid of catching scorpions, and I'm going to catch them in the future," said Ratana. "My grandfather didn't teach me how to catch them. It is my talent."

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