This Caterpillar Fungus is also known as Himalayan Viagra
Amid the wreckage of the devastating earthquake that recently ripped through this corner of the Tibetan plateau, local people are rebuilding their livelihoods with one of the world’s most ghoulish parasites – the caterpillar fungus. The government has accorded extra importance this year to the annual picking season for the ingredient, prescribed in traditional medicine to cure cancer and also nicknamed “Himalayan Viagra” because of its alleged aphrodisiac qualities.
But the growing dependence of the local community on this remarkable crop has prompted violent confrontations between rival pickers and is now stoking concerns that the mountain hillsides may one day be harvested empty. The Cordyceps sinensis fungus is known locally as Yartsa Gunbu or “summer grass winter worm”, named after the transformation that takes place as it devours its host, the ghost moth caterpillar, from inside out during the latter’s hibernation on the mountain grasslands.
The fungus briefly grabbed the world’s attention in 1993, when the Chinese national athletics coach Ma Junren credited it with the stunning success of three female runners who came from nowhere to break five world records in one competition. Western studies suggest the fungus may protect the liver. But its benefits are already treasured in Asia, where it is prescribed by doctors and given as a luxury gift, often literally worth its weight in gold.
Thanks to the expansion of this market, the value of Yartsa Gunbu has increased more than ninefold since 1997, creating what mycologist Daniel Winkler calls a “globally unique rural fungal economy” on the Tibetan Plateau. This month, the government earmarked caterpillar fungus collection as one of three industries that it will focus on to revitalise the region in the wake of the 6.9 magnitude quake that struck on 15 April. Along with the export of migrant workers and Tibetan mastiff breeding, it is a mainstay of family incomes.
Full story with photo gallery here.