Close

Support Global Voices

To stay independent, free, and sustainable, our community needs the help of friends and readers like you.

Donate now »

See all those languages up there? We translate Global Voices stories to make the world's citizen media available to everyone.

Learn more about Lingua Translation  »

The Gold Rush for Himalayan Viagra Begins in Nepal

Phoksundo Lake, the deepest lake in Nepal located in Lower Dolpa region with length of 4.8km and depth of around 600m offers stunning beauty, the living paradise on Earth. Image by Sunil Sharma. Copyright Demotix (05/10/2010)

Phoksundo Lake, the deepest lake in Nepal located in Lower Dolpa region with length of 4.8km and depth of around 600m. Phoksundo is considered an earthly paradise by locals and travellers alike. Image by Sunil Sharma. Copyright Demotix (05/10/2010)

After the April 25 earthquake, hundreds went missing in high altitude settlements in Nepal. Though many were rescued and some returned home from the Lamabagar area in Dolakha district over the course of a precarious hunt, the villages and schools in Mugu and Dolpa districts in the Karnali region of Nepal wear a deserted look. This is not due to the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, however, but because of strong demand for the much hyped ‘Himalayan Viagra’ — yarsagumba.

Since each piece of this natural treasure  fetches hundreds of rupees — a gram of yarsagumba is worth almost triple a gram of gold —  young and old have all left their homes in the search for the aphrodisiac.

Schools will remain closed for next 20 days or so — not a new phenomenon for this region. During the month long sojourn, everybody will be gleaning the gold from vast open spaces. Children, having better eyesight than the grown-ups, are better at finding yarsagumba, a caterpillar with a fungus on its body that is difficult to locate among the grass in the meadows.

Although the district development committee does not allow children below 14 years of age to work, some as young as seven risk their lives in search of the sought-after caterpillars.

So What is Yarsagumba?

Yarsagumba is a unique insect-plant combo with medicinal properties including a libido-boosting trait. In Tibetan it means summer plant and winter insect.

Found in meadows above 3,500 metres, “it appears as parasitic mushroom spores (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) infect, kill and mummify the ghost moth larva living inside the soil. A fungus sprouting out from the dead caterpillar’s head shoots above the soil.”

The fungal hybrid is thought to have medicinal properties that cure asthma, cancer and impotence. Due to its energy, vitality enhancing properties and aphrodisiac effects, it has earned the name “Himalayan Viagra”.

The lure of the harvest leads people higher and higher — often as high as 4,500 metres. The gatherers forget about everything, especially their own safety, to reach the region's main cash cow. Competition between villagers for a greater yarsagumba yield leads to disputes, fights and even deaths.

Besides the freezing temperatures, avalanche risk, altitude sickness and vertigo can all derail a gathering mission, but most of the population in the economically depressed districts put short-term profit first.

The main export market for yarsagumba is China, where it fetches $100 per gram. The global market for yarsagumba is estimated to be worth between $5 and $11 billion.

The lucrative search is the engine of the mountainous region's economy. Moreover, while there is evidence Nepal's great earthquake has impacted supply, as gatherers from the quake-affected districts weigh the value of the trip against the risk of potential aftershocks, there is still no dearth of individuals and families prepared to profit from their absence.

Over-harvesting and Sustainable Management of Yarsagumba

Greed and avarice has led to the overharvesting of the species. Amid a lack of proper regulation and sustainable management, experts fear stocks are being depleted.

Massive human pressure during the harvest season is bad for the fragile ecosystem as well. The debris and garbage left behind by harvesters pollutes and affects the environment needed for yarsagumba formation.

However, in accordance with local rituals and certain Buddhist beliefs, yarsagumba collection is forbidden on some of the mountain slopes that are considered sacred, which has helped the fungal spores to spread from these areas.

In addition to this cultural deterrent, a strong policy that includes investment into the sustainability of yarsagumba collection and trade is needed in order to allow communities to reap the benefits of nature responsibly.

For further learning on the hunt for yarsagumba see this story with photos in the Nepali Times as well as a beautifully-made documentary Journey to Yarsa by Dipendra Bhandari.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »

Guidelines

  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices
* = required field
Email Frequency



No thanks, show me the site