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New research suggests that a growing thirst for a so-called ‘Himalayan Viagra’ amongst China’s upper classes could be causing an ecological disaster.The traditional medicine, known more often as Yarsagumba, may not look like much (one AFP correspondent described it as having “the weight and consistency of a bumpy cashew nut shell”, but feeling “strange, somehow alien”).
However, it’s worth a lot — the funghi can go for as much as $100 per gram, with the entire industry worth as much as $11 billion per year. It is believed to boost the immune system, and has been prized as an aphrodisiac in Chinese culture for 500 years.
Now research, to be published next week in journal Biological Conservation, says the Yarsagumba “gold rush” could be damaging the eco-systems of Nepal and Tibet, where the funghi is found only at 3,000–5,000 meters (9,800 to 16,000) above sea level.
Nature.com describes the research’s findings:
In an attempt to assess the effects of collecting the fungus in Nepal, the study’s authors interviewed more than 200 harvesters in Dolpa, western Nepal, a region that is home to 60,000 harvesters and contributes about 40% of the total fungus yield in the country.
They found that the annual trade fell by more than 50% from its 2009 peak to 2011, with most harvesters believing that it had become more difficult to find the fungus. “The villagers spend more time in the field but are getting fewer fungi,” [Uttam Babu Shrestha, the study’s lead author] says.
As the harvesters are finding less fungi, they are taking everything they can find — the researchers say 95% of the funghi they found hadn’t reached maturity yet.
While the end of the “Himalayan Viagra” industry might not sound like the worst thing in the world, the wider effects of the death of the Yarsagumba fungus could be big. The fungus works by taking root in Himalayan ghost moth larvae that live in the soil, causing them to die and then mushroom out of the ground where they are then picked. If the fungus died out the area may see a huge boom in moths, with associated knock-on affects for the area’s ecosystem.
This is just one way in which the Yarsagumba “gold rush” has affected the region. The BBC reports that economic tensions between locals and outsiders over picking the funghi has lead to a number of murders.
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