In Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan's intellect allows him to deduce that the arrows used by Kala's killer must have something else upon them (poison) to make the target die instantly. And he is right, as he follows the killer and discovers the poison coating the tip and steals poison-coated arrows for his own needs.

However, it seems strange that he does not worry whether the poison might affect him and, to his credit, he lives after eating the kill which he has shot down.

Any poison that is sufficient to kill a massive lion such as Sabor, should also be fatal to humans as well. How is this possible?

3 Answers 3


It sounds like this poison may have been based on Batrachotoxin, which is a naturally-occurring toxic alkaloid concentrated to a useful degree by certain South American frogs and some birds in Papua New Guinea. It is one of the naturally-occurring toxins (along with the more common curare) used on poison darts for hunting.

The Wikipedia article suggests that it can drop a small animal instantly:

Poison darts made from either fresh or fermented batrachotoxin are enough to drop monkeys and birds in their tracks. Nerve paralysis is almost instantaneous.

(But note that nerve paralysis doesn't equate to immediate death; other sources indicate that it can take a minute or more to cause death, usually by cardiac arrest.)

It's not clear from the sources I've checked if it's broken down by the digestive system, though the toxicity data is only given for injected amounts, so it's possible that it is. (Alternatively, it could be destroyed by cooking, or inactivated by the process of binding to cells in the victim, rendering the meat safe to eat.)

"Instantly" dropping something as large as a hyena seems like a bit of artistic license, because even if a lucky shot injected the toxin directly into a vein, it would require at least a couple of seconds for it to circulate through the body.

  • 1
    The answer seems logical. But in the book, the hunter kills a hyena and a monkey "instantly" upon shooting. According to sciencedirect.com curare takes 'a few minutes' to kill small birds, and nearly upto 20 minutes for large mammals(such as monkeys and hyenas). Curare seems to be more of a paralyzing poison, as opposed to an instantly-killing one.
    – Simpleton
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 15:33
  • 4
    While the story might not be using curare, I think the implied answer here is that some poisons are safe to ingest but god forbid you get some in a cut or a scrape.
    – Culyx
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 16:57
  • 1
    @Simpleton - "Almost" instantly is the quote. That could easily mean a few seconds (or even more, given a certain amount of artistic licence). - "All day Tarzan followed Kulonga, hovering above him in the trees like some malign spirit. Twice more he saw him hurl his arrows of destruction—once at Dango, the hyena, and again at Manu, the monkey. In each instance the animal died almost instantly, for Kulonga’s poison was very fresh and very deadly."
    – Valorum
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 17:53
  • @Simpleton Curare and batrachotoxin are two different things - one is from a plant, the other from a frog - and maybe batrachotoxin is faster.
    – A. B.
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 13:27

A couple of possibilities.

  1. Why would he think that the poison that killed a thing, would then also kill another thing that ate the first thing? Even if very intelligent, he is only working with a very limited data set. "If I shoot an arrow coated with this stuff, it will kill an animal." Eating a thing that died is not the same as being shot by an poisoned arrow.

  2. He is likely familiar with venomous animals that consume the things they kill, or with animals that scavenge the corpses of animals who have eaten poisonous berries or mushrooms. So even if his thoughts did ponder the advisability of eating a poisoned animal, his experience would likely lead him to the conclusion that there would be no problem with consuming it. At most he might avoid the location of the injury.


I disagree with @DavidW. As Batrachotoxin is found in South America, it is much more likely that Burroughs was writing about a toxin found in Africa (where Tarzan grew up afterall). Instant death is a common myth associated with poison arrows. In reality instant death is unlikely with any poison, even those administered directly to the heart, such as Euthasol used in euthanasia of pets, which still takes 10's of seconds to be fully effective. The likely cause of instant death would be shock/blood loss etc. Poisons can however help limit how far an animal might move before death after wounding from an arrow.

Myths of poison arrows have been around since early history - the Homer wrote of them in the Odyssey, with Odysseus using poison arrows. African poison arrow myths have been around for a long time too, as documented in this paper:

Theophrastus documented use of poison arrows in Africa in the 4th century (Sharples, Huby, and Fortenbaugh 1995).

Thus it is likely that Burroughs knew about and was referring to the African poisons. Curare is the most commonly heard of one, It is a toxic alkaloid isolated from a range of plants, notably the Strychnos species, which are also known for strychnine. Curare is a slow acting poison, taking some time to kill larger animals - around 20 min for a large animal such as a tapir, and a minute or two for a bird. So definitely slower than "Instant Death"

However, toxic alkaloids are by no means the only poison used by traditional hunters in Africa, there is another group of poisons that are much quicker acting and need a much lower dose to be effective.

These are the Cardiac Glycosides, which work on the ion pump that allows the heart to work. They are extremely toxic with LD50 in the 2 mg/kg range. The most common plant derived one used in Africa is Ouabain, which works within 2-10 minutes with most large animals, so will be much quicker for smaller animals. There are other varieties of cardiac glycosides that are even more potent in terms of LD50, such as Oleandrin from Oleander plants, so it is quite likely that there are other, un-identified ones that were used in the past as poisons on arrows.

TLDR: I think Burroughs was referring to cardiac gycosides such as Ouabain as the poison on his poison arrows.

  • 1
    Of course cardiac glycosides are ingestible toxins, making them much less useful for hunting for food.
    – DavidW
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 3:20
  • @DavidW - but they are/were used for hunting in Africa, almost certainly for food. Of course Burroughs was writing for dramatic effect, so a bit of hyperbole is to be expected, but I suspect all he was thinking of was curare, akocanthera (ouabain) is a bit more obscure. However it was definitely used for food - elephant hunters, see p76 here
    – bob1
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 3:37
  • Note that my answer initially suggested curare as the most likely toxin, but I was pushed to change it to match the requirement for a faster-acting poison.
    – DavidW
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 3:42
  • @DavidW - yes, that's why I postulated the cardiac glycosides, much faster and lower LD50.
    – bob1
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 3:47
  • According to the Wikipedia article, curare is also from South America. I'm not saying Burroughs paid any attention to that - let's not forget that even the great ape species Tarzan was adopted by is a made up one - but curare certainly isn't any more African than batrachotoxin.
    – A. B.
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 13:31

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