Himalayan Viagra fuels gold rush in local Tibetans

Overwhelmed by people trying to cash-in on a prized medicinal fungus known as Himalayan Viagra, two isolated Tibetan communities have implemented a successful system for the sustainable harvest of a precious natural resource, a new research suggests.

PTI| Last Updated: Oct 31, 2014, 17:47 PM IST

Beijing: Overwhelmed by people trying to cash-in on a prized medicinal fungus known as Himalayan Viagra, two isolated Tibetan communities have implemented a successful system for the sustainable harvest of a precious natural resource, a new research suggests.

"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, from the Washington University in St Louis.

There is 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 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 meagre incomes from farming, grazing, timber sales and odd jobs, researchers said.

With yartsa gunbu fetching more per ounce than gold in some Chinese markets, many villagers now reap as much as 80 per cent 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 USD 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, researchers said.

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 per cent.

Despite dire predictions, the research suggests that local communities are rising to the challenge.

The 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 research was published in the journal Himalaya.