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Rush For “Himalayan Viagra” Leads to Clashes, Deaths

Demand for a medicinal fungus has led to over-harvesting of the substance in the Himalayas, as well as clashes and deaths.

(Rafti Institute )
smithsonian.com

A fungus called Ophiocordyceps sinensis, when it finally pops its fruit out of the ground, looks a lot like a twig—that happens to be attached to a dead caterpillar. Underground, the fungus infects the larvae of moths in the Himalayas, consumes them from the inside out, and produces its twig-like fruit from the head of the caterpillar's mummified corpse. Recently, demand for this fungus has skyrocketed, sending its price over $100 per gram. One researcher put the global market at betwen $5 billion and $11 billion per year.

Ophiocordyceps sinensis goes by a few other names. It's sometimes called yarsagumba, or yartsa gunbu—translated as "winter worm, summer grass." It's also sometimes called "Himalayan viagra."

People have harvested this fungus in Himalayan meadows and the Tibetan Plateau for hundreds of years and used it to treat a variety of ailments. It is particularly thought to boost libido and treat erectile dysfunction—hence its nickname.

Increasing demand for the fungus, though, has led to clashes among the people trying to harvest it. As China Dialogue, an NGO covering East Asian environmental issues, reported

As the number of people harvesting yarsagumba grows, tensions have risen and in some cases conflict has led to deaths. In the second week of June, two locals were killed and many injured in a clash with police in Dolpa, a district of Nepal bordering with Tibet. The incident occurred after locals demanded more transparency about the fees for harvesting Yarsagumba charged by the local community managing the Shey Phokshundo National Park.

A recent study also found that the fungus is being over-harvested, and the amount of yarsagumba found has already begun to decline. In the most important area in Tibet, the "annual trade fell by more than 50 percent from its 2009 peak to 2011," Nature reported:

“There is a similar trend in other Himalayan countries, such as China, India and Bhutan,” says Liu Xingzhong, a mycologist in the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microbiology in Beijing. On the Tibetan plateau, for instance, the fungus harvest per unit area has dropped by 10 to 30 percent compared with three decades ago....

And because hundreds of harvesters typically work in a limited area, they too could damage the ecosystem with their digging tools and by compacting the soil.

This is, in theory, good for the caterpillars the fungus consumes. But, according to Liu, the impact of a growing population of moths could cascade through the ecosystem—one more example of how human desire can profoundly change a place forever.

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