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Caterpillar Fungus: Nepali Harvesting of Aphrodisiac Threatens Local Ecosystem

Weighing caterpillar fungus in NepalNepal, one of the world’s poorest nations, is also home to its own lucrative version of Viagra. Himalayan Viagra, as it is known, is a caterpillar fungus that is harvested from the ground and sold as an aphrodisiac around the world. Its increase in popularity over the last 15 years has helped sustain the local economy in Dolpa, Nepal. However, this equivalent of a gold rush is decimating the local ecosystem and threatening the long-term supply of the fungus.

Caterpillar Fungus As Precious As Gold

The prized fungus grows in the Dolpa region of Nepal, and this is where 40,000 people come from all over in the hopes of making money harvesting it. Caterpillar fungus is formed when underground caterpillars, which normally would become ghost moths, are infected with a fungus and devoured from within. Their mummified remains protrude above ground just enough so that a trained eye can spot them and dig them out.

Aphrodisiacs have always been sought for their supposed ability to aid everything erotic from sparking a romance to treating erectile dysfunction or preventing acne. The caterpillar fungus, or yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, currently sells for $50,000 per pound.

Its value has led people to rush the hills of Dolpa in order to harvest the fungus and possibly triple their family’s yearly income. The average family in the region lives on $283 per year. However, the hordes of harvesters and their digging are destroying the ecosystem of the hills.

Prosperity’s Toll On The Land

During the six weeks or so of fungus harvesting, eager prospectors scour the grassy hills and dig up whatever looks like a caterpillar fungus. The mass hacking of the ground causes the grass to die, and the problem has become so severe that some families’ yaks perished over the winter from starvation. Locals fear that soon all of the grass will be gone, leaving them with useless barren land.

Over-harvesting also results in fewer fungal spores to invade the underground caterpillars. This means that next year’s supply of caterpillar fungus could be smaller, a trend that likely would continue as the same number of people dig for less treasure and further ravage the land. A smaller harvest will lower the standard of living for many of the rural communities in the hills. The fungus frenzy has already led to violence with two men turning up dead in a ravine and four others still missing.

Local Attempts To Stem Destruction

Alarmed at the destruction, local community leaders began charging people for the right to harvest. Locals pay 1,000 rupees, or $11, and outsiders pay three times as much. However, the fee has not deterred harvesters and seems to have been taken as confirmation of the fungus’s value.

Ecologists agree that conservation measures must be put in place to balance the welfare of the grass hills and the Nepali people who depend on the harvest for much of their livelihood. Successfully implementing such measures will require endorsement from all levels of leadership. With so much at stake economically, leaders may be reluctant to make changes without a compelling reason.

The reason most likely to have traction is that without conservation efforts, the caterpillar fungus harvest will dwindle yearly, taking the region’s profits with it. Preserving the rest of the grass ecosystem and food for grazing yaks are added benefits. The key to political action may be education about how the ecosystem really works in relation to the caterpillar fungus.

Education is the first step, but can science compete with hungry bellies? For the sake of Nepali communities in the coming years, as well as the environment, wise leadership needs to prevail.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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