Nepali Harvesting of Aphrodisiac Threatens Local Ecosystem

The treatment of erectile dysfunction is huge business. To point to a single industry product, asserts that at least 20 million men have used its drug. Yet, the drug has not been without its downside, as some point to the drug’s troubling side effects, its rising presence as a ‘club high,’ along with its ongoing illegal and dangerous use by those anxious to turn back their sexual clock.

A similar, in some ways, situation marks the advent of another emerging erectile dysfunction treatment. Ophiocordyceps sinensis, also known as yartsa gunbu, is a fungus that infects and owes its existence to the Tibetan Ghost Moth, which lives within the Himalayan mountain chain on an immense plateau so high that it is often referred to as the ‘roof of the world.’

Weighing Caterpillar fungus
Weighing Caterpillar Fungus

Traditional written and anecdotal lore sites yartsa gunbu, or the caterpillar fungus, as efficacious for everything from weakness in the blood and kidneys to coughs. However, it was Chinese athletic coach, Ma Junren, that put yartsa gunbu on the Western radar when he informed reporters after the world-record-breaking performance of three of his athletes at the 1993 National Games in Beijing, of how he routinely prescribed caterpillar fungus to enhance his athlete’s strength and endurance.

Today’s most up-to-date research appears to uphold Coach Ma Junren’s endorsement. However, as with Viagra, it is the fungus’s potential for treating ed that has taken a basic agricultural staple of the Tibetan economy and turned it into a feverishly desired commodity.

The thirst for the male potency elixir, dubbed Himalayan Viagra, is so potent that it takes hundreds of millions of fungi specimens a year to feed the ravenous appetite of those willing buyers eager to prop up their flailing libidos. As a consequence, harvesters see nothing before them but today’s profit. That every stalk found is a stalk picked becomes all the more understandable when one realizes that, for Tibetan locals, the caterpillar fungus harvest has come to account for anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of their annual income.

Whereas in the past a family might have sent one member to participate in the harvest, it is not unusual for entire villages to empty out for the four-to-six-week harvest. Nor does this begin to account for the thousands who arrive to harvest each year. Many arrive as migrant workers intent on making enough to live on for the next year.

Tibetan economies and lifestyles are changing. One town opted to fit out its local buildings with solar panels. Motorcycles and other luxuries, heretofore rare (if not unheard of) in the Dolpa district of Nepal, site of one harvest area, are increasingly visible. Yet, many worry, as grasslands used to sustain another Tibetan stable, the local yak herds, are damaged by the vigorous digging of so many thousands, while few if any stalks are left to infect the next generation of fungi.

Not only are the livestock of the region in danger; the peaceful character of the harvest has changed with the advent of its new ‘gold rush’ flavor. In the summer of 2007, more than a half-dozen people were shot in a dispute over fungal territory. Three years later another handful disappeared, also ostensibly due to a dispute over yartsa gunbu, only to be found later, slain and at the bottom of a ravine. A doctoral student and researcher, Michelle Olsgard Stewart, suggests violence occurs only in regions where the rules guiding access to harvest areas are fuzzy, or nil.

In fact, one regulatory measure already devised by environmentally-minded leaders in Dolpa requires a tax for harvesters. Fees imposed escalate from lesser amounts for locals to amounts up to three times higher for outsiders, with the resulting revenues intended to offset harvest-created damage, as well as possibly devise new means of making the caterpillar harvest more sustainable. Although, it has been suggested that the tax has only served to make entry to the yartsa gunbu harvest seem all the more desirable, luring even more harvesters to impose more damage.

As with Viagra, both the benefits and downside of yartsa gunbu are evident. Less obvious is whether the environmental downside can be overridden by education and environmental strictures. If so, then all of Tibet can continue to benefit from the economic boon brought about by a sustainable cash crop.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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