Caterpillar fungus fever leaves Tibetan nomads vulnerable

A rare fungus known as 'Himalayan Viagra' has brought prosperity, but the crop may be running out, finds Wang Yan
<p>Drolma Yangzom, 33, searches for yarsagumba during the late afternoon in May. A good winter snowfall&nbsp;results in a better harvest&nbsp;(Image: Wang Yan)</p>

Drolma Yangzom, 33, searches for yarsagumba during the late afternoon in May. A good winter snowfall results in a better harvest (Image: Wang Yan)

It's late May and the urban centre of Zaduo is deserted. Located in Qinghai province, the town’s main street is usually crammed with pedestrians and vehicles, but it's a ghost town except for a couple of patrolling policemen and some businessmen wearing white prayer caps.

“All the people here, mostly local Tibetans, have gone to the alpine mountains to dig yarsagumba,” a middle-aged man called Zhao says with a grimace.

Yarsagumba, or caterpillar fungus, is a unique fusion of a parasitic fungus and its caterpillar host. It is a prized ingredient in Chinese medicine and allegedly worth its weight in gold.   

“We are here every day waiting for them to come back, ready to buy their stuff,” Zhao says, before explaining that anyone wearing a white hat like his is a trader or middleman looking to buy the precious ingredient.

Amid all this, urban life on the plateau has been completely suspended. Stores and restaurants are shuttered, schools, and even some government offices, have closed.

It’s hard to believe that this empty town is home to more than 40,000 residents. Indeed, at the beginning of summer when the snow melts and the grass sprouts on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, ethnic Tibetans from all walks of life begin their seasonal journey in search of the valuable fungus in high-altitude pastures.

They scour the alpine ranges inch-by-inch during the day, returning to their camps in the evening. This cycle runs for almost two months.

It is a prized ingredient in Chinese medicine and allegedly worth its weight in gold 

Tibetan ‘Gold Rush’

Around lunchtime on a remote mountain slope 50 kilometres south in Sulu, workers carrying iron hoes crawl slowly on their hands and knees, carefully scanning the ground.

Tsering Tsomo, 24, says that she and her husband Tashi Doldin have already collected around 30 yarsagumba that day, worth roughly 1,200 yuan (US$188) at market.

“Every morning, we set off at around 7am and return to our tent at the foot of the mountain at around 7pm to 8pm,” says Tsering. “The work is tedious, even hazardous, and unpredictable since the quantity and quality of the harvest depends on the weather.”

On a nearby mountain slope, Awa, a young Tibetan man in his twenties, says that over the past few days he has found roughly 50 or 60 yarsagumba each day, totalling some 2,000 yuan (US$310) in daily income. Considering the per capita annual income in Qinghai province in 2017 was 19,001 yuan (US$2,970), harvesting yarsagumba is too lucrative an opportunity to miss.

Video: Wang Yan

Yarsagumba has been prescribed in both traditional Chinese medicine and Tibetan medicine for centuries. It's used for various conditions, including strengthening lung and kidney function, reviving energy, stopping haemorrhages, and decreasing phlegm.

Caterpillar fungus is now one of the most expensive medicines in the world with a current local price of up to 300,000 yuan (US$46,900) per kilogramme for the highest quality. When sold to Chinese consumers further afield, the price is higher than gold.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the price for one fungus was four to five yuan (US$0.62-0.78). Within two decades the price increased more than ten times,” says He Yunfeng, a fungus collector from another part of Qinghai.

Changing livelihoods

Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region are the two major regions inside China where yarsagumba is found. Zaduo county in Yushu prefecture – the source region of the Lancang-Mekong and Yangtze rivers – is famous for the quality and quantity of its yarsagumba.

In recent years, Zaduo has been at the centre of a fungus “Gold Rush", making it one of the fastest growing economies in Qinghai. In 2017 alone, it produced 10 tonnes of yarsagumba, almost 10% of total national production. This brought a per capita annual income of 20,000 yuan (US$3,120) to the local population.

“Since I was nine I followed my parents on this pastureland to dig for yarsagumba,” says Tsering Tsomo. “Now I’m married, and yarsagumba is the only source of income for me and my husband because we have settled in the town. We no longer have yaks on the grassland.”

Young people can cross several mountains in a single day looking for yarsagumba.
Young people can cross several mountains in a single day looking for yarsagumba (Image: Wang Yan)

Today, most young and middle-aged Tibetans here are like Tsering, and rely almost exclusively on income generated by yarsagumba. 

Pang Jimin, a local culture expert in Zaduo, says that yarsagumba harvesting was once a supplementary income for locals, with livestock husbandry the main source of livelihood.

“Collecting these organisms accounted for about 20% to 30% of household income for rural Tibetans in the 1990s,” Pang says. “Due to the booming market and high prices, since the early 2000s it has become the dominant, or even only, income source for people in Zaduo and elsewhere on the grassland.”

Li Shuangye from Zaduo Animal Husbandry Bureau says that livestock numbers in Zaduo have steadily decreased since the yarsagumba boom.

Statistics provided by Li indicate that by the end of 2017 the total number of livestock in the county, including yaks, sheep and goats, was less than 410,000, down from more than one million in the late 1990s.

“We don’t face an overgrazing problem, on the contrary, to reinforce livestock as our county’s major industry we have tried to encourage our people to maintain their tradition of herding,” Li says.

Effective management

The fungus has brought profit to Tibetans but a growing dependence on it has sparked violent confrontations between rival collectors. The influx of outsiders during the harvest period has provoked deadly conflicts.

“There were fights every year in the early 2000s and occasionally people were wounded or even killed,” says a local collector in Sulu.

Sulu boasts more than half of the total yarsagumba resource in Zaduo, and historically it has become a hotspot for collectors. Local sources suggest conflicts escalated in 2005 when people from the neighbouring county of Nangchen pushed through barricades set up by herders in Sulu. The conflict involved thousands of people and resulted in one death.

Following this, stronger regulations were enforced and the military was even deployed.

“Without regulation and systematic management, local herders charge permit fees to allow outsiders to enter, which poses security risks,” says Tsedan Druk, party secretary of Zaduo.

“So we started to prohibit people from outside Zaduo from coming in and digging yarsagumba during the harvest season. But we allow Zaduo locals who live in areas without yarsagumba to move freely to areas that have it.”

To prevent overharvesting, the Zaduo government established a strict season for yarsagumba harvesting from May 15 until the end of June.

In Sulu, collectors from other parts of Zaduo county are allowed in from May 15 and must leave on June 30 without delay. This year, according to Sulu township head Ga Song, over 6,000 people from outside Sulu arrived for the harvest season – more than twice the local population of 2,753. To compensate local people for lost resources, all collectors from outside Sulu must pay for a collection permit. Zaduo county fixes the fee for each collection permit at 1,200 yuan (US$187), while children and the elderly are exempt.

Video: 罗松桑丁

“The total revenue of over seven million yuan (US$1.1 million) generated from the entry permits will eventually be distributed among the villagers,” says Tashi Ningma, party secretary of Sulu.

“Typically, one can easily recoup the fee with a single day’s digging. It is clear that for the sake of maintaining internal stability and improving the lives of people in Zaduo, Sulu locals are making huge sacrifices.” 

Inside Sulu, four major roadblocks and ten checkpoints on roads and mountain passes control the movement of people from Nangchen county and Tibet.

“Local officials are required to man the checkpoints 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we are on high alert during the harvest season to stop people illegally entering,” says Lobsong Sangding, chief of Sulu police station.

“No major conflicts have occurred in recent years despite a number of illegal entries through mountain passes from neighbouring Nangchen county.”

Lobsong added that with effective control of outside collectors, and self-policing by local people, outsiders without entry permits can be quickly identified and persuaded to leave.

For the sustainable management of resources, the local government has stopped locals from digging yarsagumgba on the 10th, 15th and 30th day of each Tibetan month. Instead they are advised to collect garbage, do household chores, restock supplies at the county centre or just rest.

“Traditionally, these dates are sacred according to Tibetan Buddhist doctrines. Working on them is considered unlucky. All people obey this rule strictly,” says Ge Jia, 22, at his home in Sulu on a rest day.

Traders buy yarsagumba in Zaduo County on a rest day when people are not allowed to harvest the fungus.Traders buy yarsagumba in Zaduo county on a rest day when people are not allowed to harvest the fungus. (Photo: Wang Yan)

Declining harvest

As local Tibetans have become increasingly dependent on collecting yarsagumba, the quantity of the harvest on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has decreased significantly.

“Though the price rocketed during previous decades, the quantity and quality has dwindled. When I first arrived in Zaduo I was 17, and I could dig a total of 5,000 pieces during the summer season. Last year I could barely find 2,000,” says He Yunfeng, a collector.

Dingbu Jiangcai, whose family lives in Bajin Valley in Sulu, remembers when 20 years ago an adult could find 100 to 200 yarsagumba a day. Nowadays 60 to 70 is an impressive haul. At his campsite, Dingbu says that the quantity and market price for each year is uncertain.

“Changing weather has had a significant impact on the yarsagumba crop. Too much or too little rain or snow can both result in a low harvest,” he says.

Heating up

Scientific studies have found the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is extremely sensitive to global warming, and this warming trend is expected to intensify in the future.

Scientific studies have found the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is extremely sensitive to global warming, and this warming trend is expected to intensify

Chinese scientists have found that the major distribution area of yarsagumba has moved up to 4,400-4,700 metres in elevation, an increase of 200 to 500 metres in the past 30 years. Given current trends, this could see the viable range of the fungus reduced by 18.5% by 2050.

Climate change effects, including less snow in winter, an earlier snowmelt in spring, and overall warming, are considered major causes of the decline in abundance by most Tibetan caterpillar fungus collectors. In addition, destruction of grassland by pikas (small furry mammals) has resulted in severe desertification, further devastating the crop.

Located inside Sanjiangyuan National Park, apart from yarsagumba, Zaduo also boasts rich wildlife resources. Local authorities are making efforts to develop eco-tourism to provide an alternative livelihood to localsLocal authorities are trying to develop eco-tourism to provide an alternative livelihood to locals (Image: 丁布江才)

In Ni Ga’s view, a senior official in Zaduo, the yarsagumba is both a blessing and a curse for Tibetans.

“Generally speaking, I think it has brought more negative impacts than benefits. Depending solely on yarsagumba has made people lazy. With money earned easily, people have squandered their wealth and even gambled it away; it has provoked fights and conflicts among Tibetans. If someday this resource dries up, I fear the people of Zaduo might starve to death, now that so many have completely abandoned their traditional nomadic life,” cautions Ni.

“The impact on local culture is profound, since people have given up herding, and unfortunately this one-way change cannot be reversed,” says Xu Ming, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

An expert on yarsagumba and climate change, Professor Xu Ming nonetheless adds that the resource has contributed to the stability of the plateau’s ecology.

“Due to yarsagumba, local nomads have mostly settled in urban areas, resulting in a reduction of livestock on the grassland, which happened to solve the overgrazing problem that haunted the plateau in the 1980s,” Xu says.

“Considering the species itself is an important biodiversity resource, I strongly advocate securing the quantity and market price of yarsagumba for the sake of the ecosystem.”

Through his team’s research Xu aims to protect the caterpillar fungus industry.

“Existing research is not yet sufficient to prove whether yarsagumba has a high medicinal value, but I think we still need to defend this fairytale,” Xu adds.

For the moment, life on the plateau will continue in the same way so long as there is a market and a crop.

By late afternoon on May 26, a night and a whole morning of snow had fallen. But that didn’t stop Dingbu Jiangcai and his family from gearing up and heading toward the grassland to continue their harvest.


This article was originally published on NewsChina. An edited version is republished here with permission.