Rural Himalayan Farmers Getting Rich off Caterpillar Fungus

Scientists say that the harvesting of a parasitic fungus that grows on the Tibetan Plateau in China is creating revenue for rural communities. The fungus manifests itself on the bodies of caterpillar larvae and grows like finger-sized blades of grass out of the dead caterpillar heads.

The nutty-tasting fungus holds high value due to its medicinal benefits such as a treatment for cancer and aging as well as being a libido booster. And according to Daniel Winkler, a fungus researcher and head of Eco-Montane Consulting, the fungus, “medically, seems to deliver.”

Some Chinese grind up the fungus and sell it as powder, while others use it as a garnish to display their wealth.

In Tibet and other nearby Himalayan regions of Nepal and Bhutan, yak herders who harvest the fungus are reaping large financial benefits. The value of this fungus rose 900% between 1997 and 2008. To keep up with the demand increase, farmers and harvesters spend about four weeks each spring searching for this fungal gold. 

The sudden rise of interest in fungal investments, though, has also caused disputes over access to local pastures where the fungus is abundant. In July, 2007, for example, eight people were shot to death in a gun battle over prime fungal turf in Yushu, a town close to the border with Tibet. 

“Given the value of the fungus, though,” Winkler added, “it’s remarkable how few people get killed in conflict over its harvest.” 

Though some scientists are concerned about the scarcity of the product, data collected so far suggests that it is still plentiful. Although the number of fungi picked per person has dropped, the market has not seen a decline in availability of the product.

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