Ophiocordyceps sinensis is a fungus that parasitizes larvae of ghost moths and produces a fruiting body valued as a herbal remedy found in mountainous regions of India, Nepal and Tibet. It can cost as much as $100 per gram in the market. So Yarsagumba hunting has become a lucrative business in the hills and mountains of these countries. The harvest involves days of trekking to heights above 2500 meters to get to the locations.
The fungus germinates in the living larva, kills and mummifies it, and then the stalk-like fruiting body emerges from the corpse. It is known in English colloquially as caterpillar fungus, or by its more prominent names Yartsa Gunbu or Yarsagumba.
The fungus is a medicinal mushroom which is highly prized by practitioners of Tibetan medicine, Chinese medicine and traditional folk medicines, in which it is used as a treatment for a variety of ailments; as a reputed curative for many diseases, anti-aging, hypoglycemic, aphrodisiac and also treatment against cancer. It has also been used to stimulate the immune system, and to treat kidney and lung problems, fatigue, respiratory disease, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, asthenia after severe illness, arrhythmias and other heart diseases and liver disease. People also store them in full bottles of whisky. It is believed that it dissolves into the drink and sips taken every now and then works as a potent aphrodisiac. Hence the new name given to it of “The Himalayan Viagra” in recent times.
Its demand started going up rapidly after 1993 World Athletics Championship, during which Chinese athletes had set new world records. It is said these athletes were consuming Yarsagumba as tonic, which enhanced their performance, says the report.
In Chinese medicine it is regarded as having an excellent balance of yin and yang as it is apparently both animal and vegetable. Assays have found that Ophiocordyceps species produce many pharmacologically active substances. They are now cultivated on an industrial scale for their medicinal value. However, no one has succeeded so far in rearing the fungus by infecting cultivated caterpillars.
Like any herb or any other traditional medicine the benefits and side effects aren’t completely known but people continue to believe. Nepal is the second largest supplier after China (Nepal may be the largest for wild grown, China’s main source is farming) and every year dozens of lives are lost in search for these. Some due to bad weather but most due to fights and looting amongst the hunters. Researchers have now warned that uncontrolled collection of the unique species could trigger devastating changes in the fragile mountain ecosystem and destroy the local economy. But as long as China demands more every year, the price goes up and the gold rush continues.