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Climate change affecting poor Tibetans’ caterpillar harvest income

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(TibetanReview.net, Jun13’23) – Shortage of rain, changing climate and over-harvesting amid rising demand have been blamed for declining harvest in recent years of what Tibetans call “yartsa gunbu” (“summer grass, winter worm”) or popularly referred to as Himalayan Viagra, reported the Tibetan Service of rfa.org Jun 10.

Caterpillar fungus can fetch anywhere from US$18,000 to as much as US$50,000 a pound mainly because of its high demand in Chinese—as well as Tibetan—medicine.

Although still lacking scientific proof, it has traditionally been prescribed for centuries to treat a range of ailments and conditions, such as heart, liver and lung diseases, high cholesterol, low libido and impotence.

During the May peak harvest season this year, collectors had a harder time finding this slender brown root-like fungus, the report said. This is a major disappointment for many poor Tibetan farmers and nomads to whom this is a rare source of supplementing income from their subsistence means of livelihood.

“Production is already on the decline every passing year,” a Tibetan living in Kardze’s Prefecture’s Dege county, Sichuan Province, has said.

“Before, collectors would easily gather at least 100 pieces of caterpillar fungus, but now the most they can collect is 40 in a day. Some even say they can collect only 10 a day.”

Declining harvest has also led to fall in number of people paying tax to the Chinese government to be allowed to hunt for the medicinal fungus. The report cited another Tibetan in Kardze’s Lithang town as saying about 70% of the people in his village used to harvest caterpillar fungus a few years ago. But now, only about half do so because of intensive harvesting.

The report noted that a research published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal had said the decline of caterpillar fungus in the Himalayan region was due to climate change and overharvesting.

The decline in harvest has led to increase ion price. In China, where the fungus is highly regarded, its market price increased from US$6,000 to US$9,000 per pound between 1995 and 2015, a Jul 2022 report by Scroll, an Indian digital news publication, was cited as saying. And today, the price ranges from US$9,000 to US$18,000 per pound.

The report also cited Business Insider and National Public Radio reports as saying that in some rare cases, the highest-grade fungus had sold for more than US$50,000.

The fungus, which grows from the head of moth caterpillars to eventually consume it entirely, is found on meadowland above 3,500 meters (10,500 feet) in Tibet and in neighbouring Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Nepal and India. Called dong chong xia cao in Chinese, its scientific name is Ophiocordyceps sinensis and it can be consumed directly, added to food or liquids, or ground up for use in traditional medicine.


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