For generations, Chinese men looking for a dose of vigor have sworn by a traditional remedy: fungus harvested from dead caterpillars, known in some quarters these days as Himalayan Viagra.

Now Chinese investors are using the rare fungus to try to boost something else—their investment returns. The fungus has doubled in price over the past two years and the top grade now fetches more than $11,500 a pound, according to Fuzhou-based brokerage firm Industrial Securities.

With Chinese stocks falling, real-estate markets flat and bank deposits offering measly returns, Chinese investors have been looking for help in strange places. Besides traditional medicinal products, they are plowing money into art-based stock markets, homegrown liquors, mahogany furniture and jade, among other decidedly non-Western asset classes.

“On a micro level, speculation has appeared,” says Long Xingchao, president of the information center of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The association says prices of traditional medicines, including red ginseng and false starwort, have surged since 2010, partly because of speculators. Mr. Long insists, however, that a price bubble isn’t forming. “There’s nothing to pop,” he says

 

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This past weekends, gourmands started an annual pilgrimage to Piedmont for the yearly white truffle festival of Alba. Over the next month or so, ivory globes purchased in the ancient city will be shaved atop fettucine and beef tartare in eateries from Las Vegas to Macau, by eaters smug in their ability to outspend anyone to taste the best of the best, the rarest of the rare. All the while, though, the white truffle will be quietly, resoundingly out-priced by another subterranean fungus: the Cordyceps Sinensis, or caterpillar fungus.

The rare fungus, found only in small swathes of the Tibetan plateaus of the Himalaya Mountains, is the subject of a recent piece by Lauren Silverman of NPR. Silverman reports that prices now reach $50,000 a pound, explaining that traditional Chinese medicine extols caterpillar fungi for their efficacy as aphrodisiacs. “The Viagra of the Himalayas” is also a status symbol among wealthy businessmen, who cook the fungus into duck and goose. Others eat the fungus, which has been attributed with huge variety of non-erotic health benefits as well, as a tonic, a pill or in broth.

According to Cordyceps expert Daniel Winkler, most caterpillar fungi are harvested by Tibetan nomads and townspeople. They sell their finds, for a few dollars each, to Hui Muslim brokers, who then sell them to consumers in wealthy coastal China and abroad.

The market for Cordyceps Sinensis is so lucrative that it accounts for an astounding 8% of Tibetan GDP — and far more of the total cash coming into the province. The money has been a huge boon for the Tibetan people. Successful harvesters often make many times as much money as any of their neighbors, allowing them to afford education for their children and Western-made material goods for their families, according to a LA Times report on the fungus. Still, no sudden influx of cash is without its problems. There have been reports of fights and turf wars, some deadly, among Tibetans hoping for control of the market.

The caterpillar fungus has quite a modest origin, considering its massive societal impact. Every year, as winter approaches, ghost moth larvae seek shelter underneath the frigid Tibetan earth. While there, many devoured by the fungus, which emerges from the caterpillar graves in the spring, to be found by harvesters looking to make money off the impotence (or gullibility) of people thousands of miles away.

Harvesting of a parasitic fungus that grows high on the Tibetan Plateau in China is infusing hordes of cash into rural communities, scientists say.

The fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, takes over the bodies of caterpillar larvae then shoots up like finger-size blades of grass out of the dead insects’ heads. (See related pictures: “‘Zombie’ Ants Found With New Mind-Control Fungi.”)

Known as yartsa gunbu—or “summer grass winter worm”—by Chinese consumers, the nutty-tasting fungus is highly valued for its purported medicinal benefits, for instance, as a treatment for cancer and aging and as a libido booster. Far away in the booming cities of Beijing and Shanghai, demand for the fungus has soared.

(Also see “Ancient Ginkgoes, Redwoods Threatened in China.”)

“Medically, it seems to deliver,” according to Daniel Winkler, a fungus researcher and head of Eco-Montane Consulting in Seattle, Washington.

“Even the whole thing that it’s an aphrodisiac—yes, it might really help.”

Some Chinese grind up the fungus and sell it as a powder, and others use it whole as a garnish—and therefore a display of wealth.

“When you want to impress your business partner, you stuff some kind of fowl with it to show that money doesn’t really matter to you, because you just stuffed your goose with $100 worth of mushrooms,” Winkler said.

In Tibet (see map) and other Himalaya regions of Nepal and Bhutan, yak herders who harvest the fungus are getting rich from fungus sales.

By one account, the value of caterpillar fungus shot up 900 percent between 1997 and 2008, said Winkler, who has studied the phenomenon.

Nomadic yak herders now ride motorcycles, own apartments in the city, send their kids to schools, and pay someone else to do their village chores, he said.

In Search of Fungal Gold

To keep up with demand, rural harvesters spend about four weeks each spring stooped over on grassy slopes, pick axes in hand, searching for fungal gold.

Harvesters pluck the package—caterpillar larva and parasitic fungus—whole from the ground. Over the course of a month, a prolific harvester can earn more than enough cash to live on for an entire year. In rural Tibet, the fungus accounts for at least 40 percent of people’s cash income.

In Yunnan Province, caterpillar fungus sales account for 60 to 80 percent of annual household cash income, which is used to pay for school, food, refrigerators, motorbikes, and livestock, according to Michelle Olsgard Stewart, a doctoral student in geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The surge in value of the fungus has also prompted more people to participate in the annual harvest, said Stewart, who is researching the fungus.

“Households will now send three to five individuals up to harvest, whereas in the past they might have sent one to two,” she said.

(Read “Digital Music Project Races to Save Tibetan Folk Songs.”)

Fungus Harvests Spark Deadly Disputes

In some parts of the fungus’ range, such as China’s Qinghai Province, disputes over access to pastures where the species grows turn lethal each year—a sign of the economic importance the fungus now holds, Stewart notes.

The disputes tend to erupt where rights to traditional grazing lands are fuzzy or where the government steps in and sells permits to outsiders.

For example, in July 2007, eight people were shot to death in a gun battle over prime fungal turf in Yushu, close to the border with Tibet, the Guardian newspaper reported.

In Yunnan Province, where Stewart works, there haven’t been any deadly conflicts, perhaps because “they seem to have pretty clear rules over who can access which harvest areas,” she said.

Given the value of the fungus, Eco-Montane’s Winkler noted it’s remarkable how few people get killed in conflicts over its harvest.

In markets where the fungus is bought and sold, traders routinely walk around with bags full of several thousand dollars’ worth of the product. “You couldn’t do that in the U.S.,” he said.

Caterpillar Fungus Still Plentiful

Though the scientists are concerned the fungus will be overharvested, data collected so far suggests it’s still plentiful.

“I went into this thinking, Wow, people are really going to start noticing this huge decline,” Stewart said. “I really haven’t seen that response in harvests yet.”

The number of fungi picked per person has dropped, but buyers told Stewart that they haven’t noticed a decline in yartsa gunbu available for purchase.

These observations fit with Winkler’s data, which show that enough fungi are left in the ground to release spores, which invade the next generation of caterpillar larvae.

“The larvae is apparently not really impacted by the collection, and the fungus still seems to get enough spores out,” said Winkler, who published a study about fungus harvesting in 2010 in the international version of the German journal Geographische Rundschau.

Hints of a fungus decline surfaced in 2008, when Yang Darong, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, circulated a report suggesting caterpillar fungus had declined to just 3 to 10 percent of its numbers 20 years prior.

Winkler noted that Darong’s report lacks baseline data from field plots or government figures to support its conclusions. (Darong did not respond to a request for an interview.)

But Winkler and others want to obtain their own data on the fungus’ presence so that they can begin to address questions about the sustainability of the harvest—especially given its new role in the market economy on the Tibetan Plateau.

Even without a lot of hard data, “one has to be totally worried about [the harvest’s] intensity,” Winkler said. “How long can you keep it up on that level?”

For the time being, Winkler is proposing a plateau-wide harvest season, which he plans to pitch this spring on a research trip to Tibet.

His idea is to encourage harvesters to stop picking as the fungi reach maturity, leaving enough in the ground to spread their spores.

But when he talks to the collectors, “I’m prepared to hear that there is nothing to worry about.”

(See “Lightning Makes Mushrooms Multiply.”)

Fungus Collapse Wouldn’t Devastate Herders

Should a collapse occur, Winkler and Stewart fear the consequences could be devastating for the herders’ economy. While other sources of cash income such as construction and mining are available in the region, nothing is nearly as lucrative as caterpillar fungus.

To Stewart, the prospect of a crash in the caterpillar-fungus trade is worrying, but she thinks a decline would instead be gradual enough for communities to adapt without completely losing their ties to the market economy.

“It’s important to realize that it’s not a binary event—you have it or you don’t,” she said.

“There would likely be gradual changes over time. And even if the market prices dropped significantly, there would still be some. So there would be a slow transition, not a point where harvesters have to suddenly find another form of income.”

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