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Himalayan ‘Viagra' - caterpillar fungus

Traditional Himalayan ‘Viagra‘ fuels caterpillar fungus gold rush

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Overwhelmed by speculators trying to cash-in on a prized medicinal fungus known as Himalayan Viagra, two isolated Tibetan communities have managed to do at the local level what world leaders often fail to do on a global scale -- implement a successful system for the sustainable harvest of a precious natural resource, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

"There's this mistaken notion that indigenous people are incapable of solving complicated problems on their own, but these communities show that people can be incredibly resourceful when it's necessary to preserve their livelihoods," said study co-author Geoff Childs, PhD, associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

Writing in the current issue​ of the journal  Himalaya, Childs and Washington University anthropology graduate student Namgyal Choedup describe an innovative community resource management plan that some conservative capitalists might view as their worst regulatory nightmare.

In one remote village, for weeks in advance of the community-regulated harvest season, all able-bodied residents are required to show their faces at a mandatory roll call held four-times daily to ensure that no one is sneaking off into the nearby pastures to illegally harvest the precious fungus.

While regulations such as these might seem overly authoritarian, they've been welcomed by community residents desperate to get a grip on chaos associated with feverish demand for yartsa gunbu, a naturally-occurring "caterpillar fungus" prized in China for reported medical benefits. Use of the fungus as an aphrodisiac has earned it the nickname Himalayan Viagra.

Yartsa gunbu (literally 'summer grass, winter worm';  Ophiocordyceps sinensis ) results from a fungal infection that invades the bodies of ground-burrowing ghost moth caterpillars. In early spring, pinky-sized spores of the fungus emerge from the caterpillars' mummified bodies and pop up in remote grassland pastures across the Tibetan Plateau.

Located high in the Himalayan foothills along Nepal's northern Gorkha District border with China's Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the tiny rural communities of Nubri and Tsum have been ignored by economic developers for decades -- schools, roads and medical facilities are few and far between. Residents have long had little access to cash, with most scraping by on meager incomes from farming, grazing, timber sales and odd jobs.

Nepal’s Gorkha District

Nepal’s Gorkha District ( manaslucircuittrek.com)

With yartsa gunbu fetching more per ounce than gold in some Chinese markets, many villagers now reap as much as 80 percent of their annual income during the caterpillar fungus spring harvest season.

Although local incomes are still modest by Western standards, residents have seen average annual incomes rise from an average of a few hundred dollars to upwards of $4,000. But along with these riches has come serious concerns about the impact of money and outsiders on local traditions and the fragile alpine environment in which yartsa gunbu thrives.

Recent news coverage has focused on community tensions and infighting over harvesting practices, the flood of outsiders seeking to take part in the harvest and allegations of graft and bribery among community leaders.

Meanwhile, outside experts warn that over-harvest of the fungus could cause irreparable damage to fragile high-mountain pastures, with some suggesting yartsa gunbu production already had declined by 40 percent.

Cleaning yartsa gunbu

Cleaning yartsa gunbu prior to sale. Credit: Image courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis

Despite dire predictions, research by Childs and Choedup suggests that local communities are rising to the challenge. Their study documents how the residents of Tsum and Nubri have built on existing religious and cultural traditions to devise incredibly cooperative and creative systems to self-manage and regulate the community's annual fungus harvest.

The communities' harvest protocols, they argue, represent an indigenous form of regulatory management, one that may prove sustainable and equitable over the long-term.

Grounded in the resident's traditional rights to use surrounding pasturelands for grazing and other purposes, the yartsa gunbu management plans strive to manage the resource wisely while affording all residents a fair chance to share in the bounty.

The harvest provides an opportunity for people to improve their standard of living, start business ventures, enhance religious life, provide better education for children, and mitigate the economic burden associated with deaths in the family -- improvements that have been made without the help of state-sponsored development initiatives, they argue.

"In the case of Nubri and Tsum, management practices that were devised independent of state interference may prove to be sustainable over the long-run," Childs said. "Although many observers have called for more government intervention in the harvesting and sale of yartsa gunbu, our research demonstrates that, at least in some communities, it is better to allow locals to manage the resource and reap t​he benefits on their own terms."

Featured image: The Yartsa Gunbu caterpillar fungas.

Source:

Washington University in St. Louis. "'Himalayan Viagra' fuels caterpillar fungus gold rush." ScienceDaily, 30 October 2014. 

 

Comments

angieblackmon's picture

Who decided that indigenous people are incapable of solving complicated problems on their own? I mean really? We aren't doing much better over here in the "civilized" part of the world...we have just as many problems if not more.  I kinda feel like this community finally got it's "break" in the world, they finally have something that can be sold at a good price that could help improve so many aspects of their lives...I just hope the rest of the world leaves them alone long enough for them to benefit from it!

love, light and blessings

AB

This is a monumentally difficult thing to resolve. On the one hand, the fact that it is a cottage industry is getting what seems to be a fanastic amount of capital into all areas of a community with little other means of generating such revenue. On the other hand, it's hard to see how the sustainability can be properly monitored and guaranteed without some more official involvement. People with such a lot to gain from what is just dodging a few roll calls, will find a way to get hold of that much needed cash. If Tibet was independent, this would be a perfect project for a development charity to create some form of cooperative to intensify production on a small scale and spare the environment at least surrounding the communities if it produced good returns. Alas, I can't see Beijing endorsing such notions of localised empowerment.

DeAegean's picture

Mentions sustainable resource at the beginning.. This is relatively new to me so the %40 decline in production tells me the inflation of this aphrodesiac is going to be insane. It's already costing more than Au...

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