Australians are using this Amazonian frog poison as a controversial alternative medicine


A growing community in Australia are turning to ‘Kambo’, with participants largely seeking emotional clarity or a body detox. But after a recent death in Northern New South Wales, the substance has drawn scrutiny from health authorities.

Sitting in a circle of yoga mats, on the tiled floor of a suburban apartment, a Kambo ceremony is in full swing.

Each participant is equipped with water bottles and a bucket, while practitioner Debbie Lanyon snuffs the room with sage.

Using an incense stick, a row of superficial burns is blistered onto the skin of each participant before the dried toxins of South America's giant monkey frog, otherwise referred to as Kambo, is applied to each circular wound.

"You don't do Kambo just to try it ... it is incredibly intense while you're in the process," Ms Lanyon told The Feed.

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"Initially you get a hot flush through your body, and you can feel your heart pounding ... after that your blood pressure drops and that's when you start to feel really quite nauseous.

Sometimes you might even think 'get it off me! I don't want to be doing this anymore.'

For this circle, the vomiting occurs almost instantly and Ms Lanyon says the purge, which sometimes includes diarrhea, can last anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour.

"Once you've finished purging and you've gone through the recovery period, you feel amazing," Ms Lanyon said.

Kambo ceremony
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"I do refer to it as a medicine ... Kambo is a little bit of magic and it will work on whatever you need at that time."

The substance is traditionally used by Amazonian tribes for a host of anecdotal reasons; from treating fevers, to increasing fertility, to removing negative energy. Kambo has only recently made its way into the West.

Unlike other Amazonian treatments such as Ayahuasca, Kambo is reportedly not hallucinogenic. Instead, users believe the purge can shift depression, boost immunity and even aid recovery from serious illnesses.

For Christian Lechner, Kambo carries a particular significance.

"I'd been living in Canada for five years," Mr Lechner told The Feed.

"I wasn't living a particularly healthy lifestyle; I was a mess, overworked and over-partied.

"The day I got back [to Australia] from Canada, I was in my first Kambo ceremony and I was sweating bullets."

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His twin sister Natasha Lechner was the practitioner.

"I had to watch everybody systematically go through their purge before it got to me at the end and I was bloody terrified," Mr Lechner recalled.

But I did it, I had faith in her ... I knew she wasn't an impulsive, reckless person.

"And I was a new man afterwards, it helped."

Christian says his sister was originally drawn to Kambo to help manage years of chronic pain.

"I would hear screams in the night [and] doctors would prescribe the medication, they cut the vertebrae out and they continued to prescribe medication," Mr Lechner said.

"There was nothing else ... she was faced with that for the rest of her life.

"I think she just needed to take it into her own hands and when she found something like Kambo, it was an alternative, a welcome alternative."

But in March 2019, Natasha Lechner died at her home during a Kambo ceremony.

 "I got a phone call from her flat mate ... who said that there were complications, she was having a cardiac arrest," Mr Lechner said.

"She was practicing Kambo at the time."

According to the family, Natasha underwent three autopsies - after more than 12 weeks, the pathologist's report came back inconclusive. It's understood the coroner's report is still pending.

Toxicologist Dr Ian Musgrave believes Ms Lechner's death is the first known fatality in Australia associated with the practice. He says it can be a risky, potentially life-threatening procedure.

The blood pressure falls, your heart rate goes up, you've got vomiting, you've got diarrhoea.

"Generally, it stops very rapidly - but if it continues, then you could lose important minerals that could affect your heart and cause serious issues; possibly heart attack, possibly stroke,'' he told The Feed.

Kambo ceremony
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Dr Musgrave says there has been little research into Kambo's purported benefits.

"Purging has been very popular since the 19th century and it basically does nothing.

"Kambo is used in a very unregulated fashion ... we've basically got anecdotal data ... it's like nailing jelly to a wall trying to find out what's going on."

The substance exists in a legal 'grey area'.

These health unknowns have resulted in the South Australian Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner Dr Grant Davies issuing an interim ban on Adelaide-based Kambo business 'Two Wolves, One Body.'

Dr Davies said he had received advice that Kambo had "adverse effects and posed a risk to the public."

'Two Wolves, One Body' were not associated with the death in Northern NSW - but are the only identifiable practitioners in South Australia. Dr Davies told The Feed there's been no complaint in the state.

The owners of 'Two Wolves, One Body', Carlie Angel and Brad Williams, have warned that widespread prohibition could push the practice underground.

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"At the moment, if there were to be an adverse incident we have no qualms in calling an ambulance, we have no qualms in interacting with GP's," Carlie Angel told The Feed. 

"All of that goes away, all of that net to protect those people that need this and want this substance ... it becomes so much more risky for them to access."

Christian Lechner doesn't blame Kambo for his sister's death.

"I miss her every day, I cry every second day" Mr Lechner said.

"[But I want] to not only preserve my sister but to preserve her sovereign right to make the choices that she did ... without being cast as attached to Kambo because that's just one part of many things that she did in her life.

She laughed, she cried, she loved, she walked, she ran, she swam and she did Kambo.

Kambo ceremony
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A month after his sister passed away, Christian made a bold choice.

"I decided to go and have Kambo.

"This was an action; it was an acknowledgement ... toward my sister and her beliefs."