National Geographic : 1966 May
TROPICAL RAIN lashed at the thatched roof of my hut. I sat alone at the pre serving table skinning a batch of arrow poison frogs-kokoa, the local Indians call them-to prepare an extract of deadly venom. No sixth sense gave me warning that with in half an hour pain would rack me and I would be fighting for my life against the ef fects of the powerful poison in the skins. Through the doorway I could see the swol len San Juan River rushing past the mud and-palm-frond village of Playa de Oro, my base for biological collecting in the Choc6 jungle of Colombia (map, page 688). Rain is the normal weather in the Choc6, one of the wettest spots on earth. Nearly twenty-five feet of rain drench this Pacific coastal region each year. Kokoa Venom, an Aid to Medicine? The hothouse climate nurtures small crea tures of the forest floor, among them the black, yellow-striped frog Phyllobates latinasus (opposite and page 685). The jewel-like kokoa fits into a teaspoon, yet its skin exudes a venom more potent than any other known. For centuries the local Cholo Indians have 682 smeared kokoa poison on their blowgun darts. Similar primitive arrow and dart poisons -curare from South America and strophan thin from Africa, for example-provide drugs useful in surgery and in the treatment of heart ailments. Might kokoa venom also be of medi cal value? The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, wanted very much to know. I picked up another moist, limp frog and opened the skinning scissors. Accidentally incredibly-I jabbed the point of one blade into my finger! I put the finger to my mouth and sucked the blood. A strong metallic taste - then my throat began to close. Panic sent sweat coursing down my face. There is no antidote, I thought. Gasping for air, I lay down on a cot, repeating to myself, "You can breathe. You can breathe." Spasms shook me for an hour. Each time my throat constricted, I forced down another swallow of the only fluid immediately at hand-canned tomato juice. Turning my head, I saw half a dozen wet figures gathered outside the front doorway. Holding captured frogs in twists of green leaves, my hunters were waiting for me to count the day's take and pay them. How close I came to death remains a guess.