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Crocodile oil – Amafutha engwenya

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Family: Crocodylidea

Scientific name: Crocodylus niloticus

Authority: Laurenti

Synonym: Crocodylus vulgaris Cuvier 

Common names: ingwenya, crocodile, Nile crocodile, African crocodile


Crocodile oil is one of the most sought out reptilian oils in the South African traditional medicine market. This oil is not just used and sold in South African traditional medicine, it is also used in Chinese, Egyptian, and Southeast Asian traditional medicine.   

Crocodile oil is extracted from the crocodile’s fat cells (or fatty tissue). The fat is regarded as a by-product collected during the meat preparation. A single crocodile offers between 600 to 800 grams of fat. The fat contains saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, including Omega 3, 6, and 9. The oil is apparently so similar to human skin oil that it is highly unlikely to cause any type of allergic skin reaction when applied on the skin.

About Crocodiles

A crocodile is a large lizard-like semi-aquatic reptile. It has rough and scaly skin, four short legs, and a long muscular tail. There are different types of crocodiles, with true crocodiles being those that belong to the Crocodyliae family in the Crocodilia order. The Crocodilia order consists largely of predatory semi-aquatic reptiles that belong to three families:

  • The Alligatoridae family consists of the alligators and caiman (or alligatorid).
  • The Crocodylidae family consists of the true crocodiles.
  • The Gavialidae family consists of the gharial or gavial (gavial are pescatarian crocodiles, they only eat fish) and false gharial (which include the sunda gharial).  

Did you know?

There are sunda gharial in the Sundarbans in West Bengal. However, the sunda gharial is not named after the Sundarbans.

The Crocodylus niloticus (also known as the Nile crocodile) is the main crocodile species that occurs naturally in South Africa. It is a true crocodile, meaning it belongs to the Crocodylidae family, and can be found throughout South Africa, in rivers, freshwater marshes, and swamps. C. niloticus averages about 5 to 6 m in length. According to the Kruger National park website 6 m long Nile crocodiles are rare in South Africa. When young, the crocodiles eat fish, amphibians and other reptiles. For an adult crocodile, its diet can also include large vertebrates, such as buffalo and hippos. 

In some countries, crocodiles are farmed. The main purpose of crocodile farming is to produce and export luxury leather products. The skin can also be used to make an anaesthetic substance by burning the skin to ash and mixing with vinegar. The meat is eaten by humans as a source of protein. The blood is discarded or used to make pharmaceutical products. For example, the blood is boiled then used to cure chronic cough, lumbago, and sciatica. The bones are discarded, or used to make jewellery. The bones are also used in osteomancy as divining bones by sangomas. The teeth are used to make an amulet worn on the right arm. The animal fat is either thrown away, used as biodiesel, or used to produce crocodile oil. 

In the traditional medicine market, The price of crocodile parts varies depending on the freshness, with fresher parts being more expensive. The high demand for the various parts of the animal and the fact that to extract these parts the animal must be killed, its conservation status is listed as vulnerable.  

Crocodile oil properties

As mentioned earlier, crocodile oil is one of the most sought after reptilian oils in traditional medicine. It is reddish in colour and rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Note that the concentration of the fatty acids depend on the crocodile’s diet. For example, crocodiles that have a fish-based diet will have higher amounts of fatty acids than (say) crocodiles on a beef-based diet. 

The oil has a number of properties that make it a valuable cosmetic and medicinal product, including:

  • Antimicrobial activity that are effective against bacteria such as Klebsiella pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus
  • Antifungal activity that is effective against fungal infections such as Candida albicans.
  • Anti-inflammatory activity that is effective when applied on the surface of the body such as the skin or inside the mouth. 
  • Wound healing activity which speeds up the rate of wound healing and reduces scar formation in the body.
  • Anti-ageing activity that increases skin elasticity.
    • Crocodile oil can promote skin regeneration, collagen deposition, and reduce scarring.
    • Crocodile oil has the ability to hydrate the skin and decrease scaliness.

Crocodile oil uses

Crocodile oil and products made using the oil have a high economic and cosmeceutical and medicinal value. The following lists the uses of crocodile oil:

  • Crocodile oil is used as an ointment for treating various types of burns, namely, fire burns, nitrogen burns, steam burns, hot water burns, etc. 
  • Crocodile oil is one of the ingredients used to make Vimbela, a traditional medicine ointment. There are different ways of making Vimbela, depending on where you are and the plants available in the area. For example: you can make Vimbela using a plant called ubuvimba or impathampatha (whose scientific name is Withania somnifera L.). Ground the roots into powder and mix with either python oil or crocodile oil. This mixture is then used to treat different types of sores on the body.
  • Crocodile oil is used with umvuvu (or uvuvu) scientifically known as Celtis africana Burm.f.. In this case, the oil is used to anoint the Celtis africana wood to make izinduku zezulu or abafana, protection charm against lightning.  
  • A lightning protection charm is also made using umqalothi, scientifically known Strychnos decussata.
  • The oil is also mixed with iminza (Halleria lucida L.) and used as a charm against lightning. 
  • The oil is also mixed with the powdered bark of umdlangwenya (scientifically known as Cryptocarya latifolia Sond.) to treat pulmonary or respiratory ailments, such as asthma, cough, emphysema, and flu. 
  • The oil is used in treating the symptoms of impundulu. 
  • The oil is mixed with the bark of isizimane (Euclea natalensis A.DC. subsp. natalensis) and applied topically to abnormal growth and painless ulcers. 
  • The oil is used to treat leg pains, cramps, and stiffness.
  • The oil is rubbed into the scalp of a bald to encourage hair growth
  • The oil is applied on the wound to heal the caesarean section wound.
  • The oil is rubbed in the joints to treat pain.
  • The oil is mixed with ground bark of umkhondweni (Cryptocarya latifolia Sond.) and the mixture is used to treat chest pains.
  • When the oil and umkhondweni are mixed with the ashes of the burned powdered bark of isizimane (Euclea natalensis A.DC. subsp. natalensis), the mixture is applied topically to abnormal growth and painless ulcers. 
  • The oil is mixed with poppy seeds and the mixture used to treat bites of venomous animals.
  • The oil is also used in tanning.

Thailand has the largest crocodile industry worldwide. The most famous brands source crocodile skin from Thailand. The oil is used to make a liquid balm, for sore  which is made by mixing the crocodile oil with menthol, wintergreen oil, borneol, and camphor. In other countries, the oil is used to make various lotions and ointments. It is also used to make herbal massage oils, for example crocodile oil massage oils are prepared using virgin coconut oil as the carrier oil. 

In general, the oil is useful for treating various types of dermatological or skin-related issues:

  • It is used to dim or fade freckles (small brownish spots on the skin), uneven dark tones, sun spots, acne, pimple marks, dark lines, wrinkles, and laugh lines.
  • It helps prevent skin discoloration.
  • It is used to manage skin rash and dryness.
  • It is also used for skin ulcers and skin cancer.  
  • It can moisturize the skin and make it softer, brighter, and more attractive.  
  • The oil can be rapidly absorbed through the skin and it is used to relieve skin inflammation, scar, and wrinkle.

Crocodiles are amongst the most fearsome animals in the animal kingdom. And Sabie, the forestry town in Mpumalanga, got its name due to this trait. The local Swati people that were living there were fearful of the local river because it was full of Nile crocodiles, so the river was called Ulusaba. The early Afrikaans settlers changed the names from ulusaba to Sabie. 

Reference and further reading:

  • Andés, L.E., 1898. Animal Fats and Oils: Their Practical Production, Purification and Uses for a Great Variety of Purposes, Their Properties, Falsification and Examination; a Handbook for Manufacturers of Oil-and Fat-products, Soap and Candle Makers, Agriculturists, Tanners, Etc., Etc. Scott, Greenwood.
  • Anuchatkidjaroen, S. and Phaechamud, T., 2012. Surface Tension and Viscosity of Herbal Massage Oil. In Advanced Materials Research (Vol. 506, pp. 343-346). Trans Tech Publications Ltd.
  • Bardinet, T., 1995. Les papyrus medicaux de l’Egypte pharaonique, edition Fayard. Paris, 59l p.
  • Buthelezi, S., Southway, C., Govinden, U., Bodenstein, J. and du Toit, K., 2012. An investigation of the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activities of crocodile oil. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 143(1), pp.325-330.
  • Chook, C.Y.B., Chen, F.M., Leung, F.P., Chen, Z.Y. and Wong, W.T., 2021. Potential of crocodile blood as a medication and dietary supplement: A systemic review. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, 48(8), pp.1043-1058.
  • Corrigan, B.M., Van Wyk, B.E., Geldenhuys, C.J. and Jardine, J.M., 2011. Ethnobotanical plant uses in the KwaNibela peninsula, St lucia, South Africa. South African Journal of Botany, 77(2), pp.346-359.
  • Grace, O.M., Prendergast, H.D.V., Jäger, A.K., Van Staden, J. and Van Wyk, A.E., 2003. Bark medicines used in traditional healthcare in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: An inventory. South African Journal of Botany, 69(3), pp.301-363.
  • Hoffman, L.C. 2008. The yield and nutritional value of meat from African ungulates, camelidae, rodents, ratites and reptiles. Meat Science, 80, pp. 94–100. 
  • Ikram, S., 2010. Crocodiles: guardians of the gateways. na.
  • Kelly, L., 2006. Crocodile: evolution’s greatest survivor. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, Australia.
  • Koopman, A., 2011. Lightning birds and thunder trees. Natalia, 41, pp.40-60.
  • Lötter, A.P., 2009. Uses for crocodile oil and crocodile oil containing products. Unpublished, pp. 1-3.  
  • Li, H.L., Chen, L.P., Hu, Y.H., Qin, Y., Liang, G., Xiong, Y.X. and Chen, Q.X., 2012. Crocodile oil enhances cutaneous burn wound healing and reduces scar formation in rats. Academic emergency medicine, 19(3), pp.265-273.
  • Li, H.L., Deng, Y.T., Zhang, Z.R., Fu, Q.R., Zheng, Y.H., Cao, X.M., Nie, J., Fu, L.W., Chen, L.P., Xiong, Y.X. and Shen, D.Y., 2017. Evaluation of effectiveness in a novel wound healing ointment-crocodile oil burn ointment. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, 14(1), pp.62-72.
  • Maisuthisakul, P., Utilization of crocodile fat from crocodile leather by product for crocodile balm oil production.
  • Ozioma, E.O.J. and Chinwe, O.A.N., 2019. Herbal medicines in African traditional medicine. Herbal medicine, 10, pp.191-214.
  • Pooley, E., 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Natal Herbarium, Durban.
  • Pujol, J., 1990. Natur Africa: The Herbalist handbook. Lean Pujol Natural Healers Foundation, Durban.
  • Ramulondi, M., De Wet, H. and Ntuli, N.R., 2022. The use of African traditional medicines amongst Zulu women during childbearing in northern KwaZulu-Natal. African Journal of Reproductive Health, 26(1), pp.66-75.
  • Shirley, M.H., Oduro, W. and Beibro, H.Y., 2009. Conservation status of crocodiles in Ghana and Côte-d’Ivoire, West Africa. Oryx, 43(1), pp.136-145.
  • Siyabonga Africa. 2022. Crocodiles. Available from: (Accessed on: 17 May 2023)
  • Williams, V.L., Moshoeu, T.J. and Alexander, G.J., 2016. Reptiles sold as traditional medicine in Xipamanine and Xiquelene Markets (Maputo, Mozambique). South African Journal of Science, 112(7-8), pp.1-9.

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