Jul 26, 2017

Climate threatens 'Himalayan Viagra' fungus, and a way of life

Nepal
by
Sameer Pokhrel
,
Climate Home
Cordyceps sinensis grows from the head of caterpillar larvae and is thought to be an aphrodisiac. Photo: William Rafti Institute
Cordyceps sinensis grows from the head of caterpillar larvae and is thought to be an aphrodisiac. Photo: William Rafti Institute

A Himalayan fungus used in Chinese medicine, which underpins the livelihoods of communities of harvesters in Nepal, is under the threat due to climate change.

Harvesting the Cordyceps sinensis fungus, called ‘yarsha gumba’ in Nepal, provides a livelihood for Himalayan dwellers. The fungus fetches up to Rs 2,800,000 (£20,000) per kg in raw form. During the peak season of yarsha collection, locals drop everything to pursue fungus hunting, including their usual profession. Even schools remain closed during yarsha collecting seasons.

The fungus grows on the head of the larvae of caterpillars and locals crawl on hands and knees to find it. The work is hazardous in the high altitude regions where the fungus grows, with hunters young and old regularly succumbing to exposure.

Himal Aryal, who has been involved in the yarsha trade for eight years in Rukum, a mountain district west of Kathmandu told Climate Home that 90% of buyers were Chinese.

“It is known as Himalayan Viagra as it helps to increase libido in both sexes, for which only a few rich people buy the fungus,” he said.

But local yarsha hunters have been experiencing a huge drop in the availability of the fungus in recent years.

Bibek Jhakri, who has also collected the fungus for eight years, said: “I used to find 50-60 yarshas a day during my earlier years, while now finding four to five per day is a matter of luck for me.” He said he was afraid his major source of income won’t last.

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A 2016 study published in the journal Biological Conservation, found a combination of climate change and untimely and over harvesting were to blame for the previous falls. Whereas in future the range of the fungus would be reduced by up to a third because less snow would fall in the pastures and snow would melt earlier in spring.

High mountains are experiencing a more rapid change in temperature than lower elevations. “There are strong theories that guide the expectation of climate change being comparatively higher in mountains than at sea level,” Nicholas Pepin, a geographer at the University of Portsmouth, told Climate Home.