Yarchagumba: The Himalayan Viagra

Cordyceps sinensis (Image: Nicolas Merky/ Creative Commons)
A parasitic fungus from the Himalayas fuels a multi-billion dollar industry.

Nobody could have guessed that the events at the 1993 World Athletic Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, would change the lives of thousands of South Asian hills people. Little-known Chinese athletes, Liu Dong, Qu Yunxia and Wang Junxia, sprinted at a blistering pace to win golds in the 1,500m, 3,000m, and 10,000m categories. Their unlikely success brought international attention to their training and diet regime, devised by the now-infamous Ma Junren.

For many years, Junren’s athletes escaped the censure of doping agencies thanks to his innovative use of a secret potion, concocted from a parasitic fungus that is unique to the Tibetan Plateau and some sections of the Himalayas. Cordyceps sinensis, the fungi, has been shown to increase metabolism, decrease blood pressure, improve adrenal hormone secretion – and most reputedly, boost sexual function.

The rumour of the fungus’ legendary abilities stems from the 15th-century Tibetan text, ‘An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities’, which describes the fungus as a “faultless treasure” that “bestows inconceivable advantages”.

The thirst for the ‘Himalayan Viagra’ drives thousands to the mountains every year; hunting for parasites. It has been a part of traditional medicine in China for centuries – the Ming emperors were among its earliest patrons. In the current era, it’s not illegal, and paired with turtle blood and a brutal training regime, was Junren’s secret to sending many athletes to success.

Demand for the caterpillar fungus has soared across Asia. The rates can be astronomical for a rural householder – a single family can make up to 600,000 Nepali rupees (over $5800) in one harvesting season. In 2011, a single pound of the fungus would sell for $50,000. All this, to supply a global market for the fungus valued at $5-11 billion.

In bottled jars in traditional Chinese apothecaries or served as a stuffing inside a chicken, the caterpillar fungus – known as Yarsagumba in Tibet – is marketed and sold across the world, in over 200 types of supposed medicine. You can even find it advertised in energy drinks.

The actual story of how the fungus comes to be may defer appetites in the Western world. The fungus grows in temperatures below 21°C, and starts its journey by infecting caterpillars (usually of the Ghost Moth species) that burrow underground. Over time, the parasitic fungus fills the worm’s body with mycelia, until it explodes out of its head, forming the brown pinky-finger-sized tendril you can see jutting out of the caterpillar body.

The Himalayan gold rush for the caterpillar fungus has changed life in the mountains. Life in the village of Dolpa grinds to a halt when the season to harvest the fungus (before they turn dry) emerges. Teachers wrap up their classrooms because none of their children will attend. Many harvesters even die of exhaustion, trekking through the mountains without break. This village alone accounts for 50 percent of the global supply. And with great financial incentive, comes a rising conflict sparked by the new Himalayan ‘soft gold rush’.

In Uttarakhand, soldiers as well as smugglers have been apprehended with the fungus and bags of cash. People have been killed around the trade. It’s a similar story in Chinese Tibet, where rival traders were killing each other so frequently that the Dalai Lama had to appeal for calm. In 2009, seven Gorkha poachers were found dead in a ravine; suspected to have been killed by local villagers.

During the Nepali Civil War (1996-2006), Maoist rebels (now standing for elections) used to tax the farmers who harvested the caterpillar fungus, using the funds to fuel their insurgency. In a way, they were replacing the then-falling government, whose own taxes were not being collected. For the villagers who harvest, their mountainous homes never offered many avenues to make money – and they’re making the best of the situation. In some places, locals have drafted their own taxes to fund community-development.

The global demand for the ‘Himalayan Viagra’ has boosted the fortunes of countless families. But it’s also put a strain on the ecology of the fungus, whose numbers have been declining. In China, it is considered endangered. The Yarchagumba’s fortune (and Ghost Moth’s misfortune) depends entirely on its environment. Global warming induced desertification of the Himalayas could destroy these habitats for good. Not to mention the other ground-dwelling species that are disturbed by the human hunt for the fungus.

For the thousands of villagers across India, Nepal, China and Bhutan who harvest the fungus, the global demand has given them new avenues for economic growth. They’ve formed a unique, symbiotic relationship with the parasite – but one that is not sustainable forever. No Gold Rush lasts forever.

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