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caterpillar fungus
One of the most valuable commodities in Tibet is a caterpillar fungus, an expensive traditional medicine ingredient that is touted as a cure for a number of illnesses including, kidney and lung ailments, SARS and AIDS and treatment for everything from impotence to aging. Among those that swear by it is the basketball player Yao Ming. Annual demand estimated at $11 billion in the mid 2010s.

The caterpillar fungus life cycle is is one of nature’s more unusual creations. Caterpillar fungus is a parasitic fungus that envelopes, kills and penetrates the larvae (caterpillar) of the ghost moth (also known as the Himalayan bat moth) and feeds on it mummified body. The fungus grows inside the larvae and kills its host after it has burrowed beneath the ground. As the winter snows retreat, a small shoot grows out of the shell of the dead larva, sprouting up from ground. It looks like a little yellow root with a stalk growing from the top. A single caterpillar fungus can be sold by peasants for about $5 and it in turns commands as much as $20 at a Chinese medicine shop.

Chinese caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) is often made into soup or cooked with chicken. Known as yartsa gunbu in Tibet, yarsagumba in Nepal, and aweto or dongchong xiacao in China. it is is considered a medicinal mushroom in Oriental medicines and is famous throughout the Himalayas. Regarded as both plant-like and animal-like, caterpillar fungus is worm-like in the winter and grass-like in the summer. It is composed of a larva and sporophore growing on the top of its head. Found mainly on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in Qinghai, Tibet, Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan, the larva is three to five centimeters long, 0.3-0.8 centimeters thick with yellowish brown and coarse surface, have segments with several annular marks and eight pairs of feet present at the abdomen with the middle fourpairs more prominent. and the organism is brittle. The sporophore is slender, longer than the larva, deep brown, with longitudinal striae, and its top is elliptical, enlarged, with numerous protruding granular peritheciums, and soft and tough in texture. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Caterpillar fungus can only found in May and June after the snow melts in the higher regions of the Himalayas. One kilogram of it can fetch more than US$20,000. Trade of it is illegal in India and has become a curse in some places, where there have been clashes over harvesting rights and villagers sometimes fighting to protect their harvesting areas from outsiders. [Source: Himanshu Khagta, BBC, September 7, 2016]

Bhutan, Tibet and Qinghai and Yunnan Provinces in China are famous for caterpillar fungus, pseudo-ginseng and gastrodia. Some villagers spend months at time searching the Qinghai mountains for caterpillar fungus, which is said to strengthen both lungs and sexual prowess and is sold in pharmacies and airport gifts shops for hundreds of dollars an ounce. Yunnan White Medicine, a mixture of caterpillar fungus and over 100 herbs, is highly sought after.

Caterpillar Fungus and the Caterpillar Fungus Moth

The Tibetan word for caterpillar fungus is yartsa gunbu, whichmeans “summer grass, winter worm,” although it is technically neither grass nor worm. Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “ It’s the underground-dwelling larva of one of several species of the ghost moth that has been infected by spores from a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps sinensis. The fungus devours the body of the caterpillar, leaving only the exoskeleton intact, and then, come spring, blooms in the form of a brown stalk, called the stroma, that erupts from the caterpillar’s head. This process happens only in the fertile, high-alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya. All attempts at farming the fungus have failed. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

Ghost moths thrive only at high altitudes of 3,000 to 5,000 meters in most soil. An estimated 96 percent of the world’s harvest come from the Qinghai- Tibetan plateau. Their Life cycle: 1) a ghost moth lays eggs on grass, leaves or ground; 2) a larvae hatches and burrows into the earth; 3) microscopic fungal spores wash into the soil and infect the larvae; 4) the fungus consumes the larvae within, moving towards the surface, where a club-shaped stroma emerges; 5) Inside the stroma, sacklike structures produce spores. 6) When the stroma ripens it shoots out spores. Wind carries millions of spores. [Source: National Geographic]

According to a 1992 study (Gao et al, Acta Entomol. Sin. 35: 317-321) the caterpillar fungus consists of larvae of Hepialus oblifurcus Chu and Wang (Lepidoptera: Hepialidae) infected with the obligate entomopathogenic fungus Cordyceps sinensis (Berkeley)(Clavicipitales, Ascomycotina). The authors of the study briefly summarize biology of both hepialid moths and the fungal genus Cordyceps and the methods of packaging and preparing the fungus for ingestion. Espelie (1994) and X. Chen (1990) give the identity of the caterpillar as Hepialus armoricanus, which raises a question as to whether there is taxonomic synonymy involved or whether more than one species serves as host for the fungus. Cordyceps species appear to be host-specific, according to Steinkraus and Whitfield, but they note that this may only be apparent because more than half of the described species are known only from the original collection. [Source: == ]

History of Caterpillar Fungus Use

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post:“The first known reference to” caterpillar fungus’s ““innumerable” medicinal qualities comes in a 15th-century Tibetan text, which recommends grinding it into a powder and boiling with a sparrow’s chest and yak’s milk. “It sharpens the senses,” the text promises, and “serves best for the purpose of libido, increasing offspring and improving vitality.” A descriptions in the 15th-century Tibetan text, "An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities" touts the “faultless treasure” that “bestows inconceivable advantages” on those who ingest it. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post July 2, 2016]

“By the 17th and 18th centuries, it was being imported into China for medical use and is mentioned in a Jesuit priest’s account of medical treatment at the emperor’s court in 1736. Even during the chaos of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the harvest continued, although Tibetans had to surrender what they found to the Communist Party.

“But it was not until the 1990s, as China’s economy opened up and disposable incomes rose, that popular demand for caterpillar fungus exploded — and so did the price. In 2003, as panic spread about an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the fungus was marketed as a cure. Ground into powder, made into tablets, cooked with food or even steeped in alcohol, suddenly the fungus was everywhere, and stocks in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa ran out within days. China’s gift culture, and the corruption that accompanies it, has also popularized the product. It is far healthier as a gift than alcohol or cigarettes, and more elegant than a bulky wad of cash.

Health Benefits of Caterpillar Fungus

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caterpillar fungus
Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “For centuries caterpillar fungus has been thought to possess miraculous medicinal and libidinous powers. Yaks that graze on it, legend holds, grow in strength tenfold." For humans, just boil a few in a cup of tea, or stew in a soup, or roast in a duck, and all that ails you will be healed—or so it’s said. The worms, as they’re colloquially known, have been prescribed by herbalists to alleviate back pain, impotence, jaundice, and fatigue. Also to reduce cholesterol, increase stamina, and improve eyesight. To treat tuberculosis. And asthma. Bronchitis and hepatitis, anemia and emphysema. They’re billed as an antitumor, antiviral antioxidant. A treatment for HIV/AIDS. A balm for those recovering from surgery. They may even help with hair loss. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012]

According to the Chinese government: Caterpillar fungus is sweet in taste, warm in nature, and attributive to lung and kidney channels. Caterpillar fungus is rich in various microelements, lukewarm in nature and sweet. It helps invigorate lung, liver and kidney functions, supplements essence, improves inspiration to relieve dyspnea, eliminates phlegm, and stops bleeding. Caterpillar fungus is a good tonic, and an ideal remedy for treating a long-time cough and weakness, asthma, sputum with blood, aching knees and waist, as well as impotence. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

In 1993, stunning world record track performances by Chinese women runners rocked the track world and received considerable press coverage in the U.S. and elsewhere. The Chinese coach attributed his athletes' success to hard work and drinking large portions of an expensive potion made from the rare dong chong xia chao worm found on China's western high plateau. Steinkraus and Whitfield (1994) cited a source in the sports world in saying, "Although recent statements from the Chinese attribute the athletes' success to their intense training schedules rather than to their dietary supplements, the possible stress-relieving properties of the caterpillar fungus continue to intrigue Western athletes and scientists." [Source: == ]

The fungus has always been expensive, affordable only by the well-to-do, and remains so today. Steinkraus and Whitfield ordered it from an American-Chinese apothecary in 1993 at a price of US $18/oz which is very close to the wholesale price quoted in China (US $700/kg). The pharmacologic properties of the caterpillar fungus are said to resemble those of ginseng (Panax quinguefolius), strengthening and rejuvenating a system harmed by overexertion or long illness. Many other medical benefits are also attributed to the fungus. ==

Although the incredible performances of the Chinese women's track team cannot yet be attributed to the fungal potions, the authors conclude that, "Clearly, Cordyceps spp. deserve more [research] attention from pharmacologists, chemists, and entomologists." Unfortunately, Cordyceps has its greatest diversity in rainforests and becomes much less abundant as the rainforests are disturbed and destroyed. "The loss of these fascinating insect pathogens will be especially tragic because of their potential as a source of pharmacologically active compounds."

Caterpillar Fungus User

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “On the fifth floor of a modern high-rise apartment building on the east side of Beijing, resting on her sofa and flanked by her bichons frises—Quan Quan (Little Circle) and Dian Dian (Little Dot)—Yu Jian sips a cup of freshly brewed yartsa gunbu tea. Yu is 40 years old; she’s wearing a cheery flower-patterned blouse and leopard-print slippers. Until recently, she was an executive at a health food company. But in October 2010 she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

“She pursued a modern course of treatment, including extensive rounds of chemotherapy. But she also decided to visit a traditional Chinese herbalist. He prescribed yartsa. She’s been using it for about six months. Each evening she places two worms in a glass of water and lets it sit overnight. In the morning she boils the water along with some dried dates. She drinks the tea and then eats the softened worms. Yu buys only the highest quality yartsa, from the Tongrentang chain of pharmacies—one of the few brand names more famous, and more expensive, than Zhaxicaiji’s. A bag of 24 midsize worms, enough to last a couple of weeks, costs her more than $550. “I think it’s worth it,” she says, though she is aware of the skepticism surrounding its effectiveness. So far the proof for the power of yartsa gunbu is not in. ++

“Yu Jian claims she can feel the worm’s effect—both physically and psychologically. She says it improves her spirits and revitalizes her “life energy”—what’s known in China as qi (pronounced chi). Her actual energy, though, can be variable. Though she’s quite thin, Yu does have a soft ruddy color and a palpable vigor. On better days, it’s easy to give the worms the credit. Other times, she’s reminded that all cures, ancient and modern alike, have their limits. Yet on her most recent medical visit, she recalls, her doctor was shocked by the swiftness of her improvement. “He didn’t even remember I was a cancer patient,” she says.

Do Cordyceps Work

No Western studies have proved its efficacy. Daniel Winkler, an ethno-mycologist who runs the website, says that East Asian studies and research at Britain’s University of Nottingham suggest that cordycepin, a chemical extracted from the Cordyceps, could be put to use as a painkiller in the treatment of osteoarthritis and possibly cancer. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post July 2, 2016]

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “Some studies, conducted primarily in China, reveal that it does contain an immune system modulator known as beta-glucan and an antiviral agent called cordycepin. A few clinical trials suggest it can help alleviate many of the conditions it’s long been prescribed for, including bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, high cholesterol, and sexual dysfunction. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

But critics say the studies have been small and the methodology suspect. “Until someone does a large clinical trial using a high-quality product, the science we have to rely on so far is not suggestive of a significant effect,” says Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, who has extensively studied herbal medicines. What’s more, says mycologist Paul Stamets, wild yartsa may be tainted by any number of unidentified fungal molds, some of which might be harmful. “People could be poisoned,” says Stamets, who has written six books on mushroom cultivation and sells his own mushroom products. “For the inexperienced, it is a form of Russian roulette.” Whether the worms are a potent elixir or an exorbitantly expensive myth, there’s little sign the yartsa gold rush will be over anytime soon. The evidence may be far from certain, but the belief is pervasive.

Cordyceps May Contain Anti-Cancer Drug

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Grahame Hardie wrote in The Conversation: “The Spores released by parasitic fungi of the group cordyceps” — which includes caterpillar fungus — “infect insect hosts, causing the fungus to grow inside them. Eventually this kills the host, but a bizarre twist is that before they die their behaviour is changed to assist the release of new fungal spores.” These “fungus could produce health benefits and even be useful against cancer. [Source: Grahame Hardie, The Conversation, March 3, 2020]

Cordyceps contain a molecule called cordycepin, and several recent studies have revealed that cordycepin switches on a cellular protein called AMPK, a protein that has been described as a magic bullet for health. Studies in animals have shown that drugs that switch on AMPK can reverse some types of diabetes and cancer, protect against arterial and heart disease, and even extend lifespan. So the health benefits of cordycepin might be due to its ability to switch on AMPK. But exactly how it did that has been a mystery — until now.

“Our recent research shows that if cells are supplied with cordycepin they will convert it into a chemical called CMP. This is very similar to another chemical that the body produces naturally and has the same effect of switching on AMPK, which happens when cells are low on energy. CMP tricks cells into thinking they are running out of energy, even though they are not.

“While switching on AMPK in this way might have many desirable effects, the problem is that cells also convert some of the cordycepin to another chemical called CTP. This causes problems with cell growth and division that may eventually cause the cells to die, a so-called “cytotoxic” effect. This might even be how the parasitic fungus finally kills its insect host.

“Unfortunately, the levels of cordycepin needed to produce the positive effect of switching on AMPK are too close the levels that produce the negative effect of cell death to make the substance a safe drug for treating most diseases. But there may still be a use for cordycepin in treating cancer because rapidly growing cancer cells are more vulnerable to cell death induced by cytotoxic drugs than healthy non-growing cells. So cordycepin could be added to the existing armoury of cytotoxic drugs used to treat cancer. Paradoxically, however, the ability of cordycepin to switch on AMPK might be a bad thing in this case. We found that AMPK activation protected cells against cell death induced by cordycepin, and so might cause more cancer cells to survive treatment.

Caterpillar Fungus Trade

The main center of the caterpillar fungus trade is in Qinghai Province, particularly in the Tibetan enclave of Golog, where fungus collecting is the main source of cash. During the fungus hunting season, schools close down so children can help in the search and people with jobs take time off with visions of making big money . The best fungus is found at higher elevations in places such as Heitushan, the 14,000-foot-high Black Earth Mountains in Golog.

Reporting from Qinghai, Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post:“Today in a high-end shop in the north-central city of Xining, 700 pieces of Grade 1 Cordyceps weighing 500 grams (1.1 pounds) sell in a velvet-lined wooden box for 264,000 yuan ($40,000), although lower-grade specimens fetch a third of that price. It is marketed as “god grass,” and shop employees don white gloves as they bring sterilized samples out of glass cases. They explain how a unique combination of trace minerals, germ plasm, organic alpine soil and unique climatic conditions give it “supernatural” qualities. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post July 2, 2016]

Gyegu in Yushu County is the Tibetan town at the center of the industry. In the market there , Tibetan women in shawls and floppy hats sit on low stools, gloves on their hands and masks on their faces as they brush the mud from harvested Cordyceps. A monk wanders through with a plastic bag of muddy fungus, while others count huge wads of cash, prayer beads swaying as they thumb red 100 yuan notes, worth about $15. A crowd gathers as a big deal is negotiated, 10 pounds of Cordyceps changing hands for $42,000: The wholesale price is much lower here than in high-end retail shops in the big cities, but this still represents a substantial cash transaction.

Caterpillar Fungus Wealth and the Problems Created By It

Caterpillar fungus sparked a modern-day gold rush across the Tibetan Plateau. Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post:““Tibetans say the product is too expensive for them to consume, but the income it brings has transformed communities. People across the plateau have bought motorbikes and cars, solar panels, freezers and televisions. They also have financed their children’s education, stashed savings in the bank and even clubbed together to repair local roads. The fungus has brought economic empowerment and employment, including for women, says Emilia Roza Sulek, a socio-anthropologist who studied the impact of the fungus in southeastern Qinghai. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post July 2, 2016]

“But it also has brought tales of drunkenness and gambling, of environmental degradation and even violence. Hundreds of thousands of people trample the grasslands for the fungus, leaving trash in their wake, while neighboring communities, armed with knives or rocks, often have clashed for access to the best harvest grounds, sometimes fatally." Locals have fought with Han Chinese and Hui Muslims over the best places. Some roads are roped off by police to keep outsiders from entering. Every year a few people are killed in turf battles. "In 2013, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, appealed for calm, calling the quarrels a crisis.

“Near remote Xiaosumang, Sanding Dorje patrols the slopes, ever on the alert for an out-of-town license plate on an approaching motorbike. “Some outsiders came last year and picked the fungus on a holy mountain,” he said. “But then a thunderstorm came, and they were forced to kneel and prostrate themselves, to atone for their sins.”

A Tibetan educator and physician told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s not good for...building a harmonious society. People have become territorial. There are a lot of fights between family and friends and the possibility of corruption. Also a worry are environmental concerns like soil erosion and desertification caused by the excessive digging for the fungus.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “Caterpillar fungus can easily be priced at more than twice their weight in gold. In the 1970s a pound of worms cost a dollar or two. In the early ’90s it was still less than a hundred dollars. By 2012 a pound of top-quality yartsa can retail for $50,000.
Due to the annual windfall, thousands of formerly impoverished Tibetan yak herders own iPhones and flat-screen TVs. Battles over worm-picking turf—most areas allow only licensed residents to pick—have resulted in violent encounters, including seven murders in northern Nepal...In the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, burglars once tunneled, prison-break style, into a shop selling yartsa, making off with more than $1.5 million worth of product. The Chinese police have established numerous roadside checkpoints to prevent poachers from sneaking on to hillsides reserved for local villages. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

Hunting for Caterpillar Fungus

Every spring Tibetans and others move across yak meadows with a small, curved metal trowel looking for the caterpillar fungus. Poking up about a centimeter, the purplish, toothpick-shaped stem is extremely hard to spot. A mother assisted by her two daughters hunting caterpillar fungus can earn thousands of dollars a season, many times what most rural Chinese families earn and enough for a peasant to build a new house. The season runs for about 40 days in the early spring when snowmelt turns the ground wet and spongy. Timing and vision are crucial. A sharp eye is needed to find the fungus that sticks up out of the earth among clumps of grass and earth. If you dig too early you get a live caterpillar. It is best to dug just after the fungus has killed the larvae.

Reporting from Xiaosumang in the Yushu area of Qinhai, Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post:: “High on the Tibetan plateau, on the sides of steep green valleys dotted with herds of grazing yaks, beneath forbidding snow-clad peaks, a line of adults and children crouch and crawl across the slopes. “They are hunting — not for game but for a tiny brown shoot poking just an inch or two above the ground amid the retreating snows, revealing a mushroom known as the caterpillar fungus. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post July 2, 2016]

“Tibet’s annual gold rush is in full swing, school’s out and 47-year-old Chu Tsering has brought two of his sons and one daughter on his motorbike to take part in the search. Chu, his weather-beaten face shielded from the sun by a cowboy hat and shades, owns more than 100 yaks. But he says 90 percent of his family’s income stems from just two months of work combing the slopes. “We couldn’t survive without it,” he says. The same is true for hundreds of thousands of Tibetan herders across a vast swath of the plateau for whom caterpillar fungus is their main source of income, their economic lifeline and their only link to China’s growing prosperity.

When harvest time comes around in mid-May, schools are given two months’ vacation and children fan out over the grasslands with parents at their side. With their sharp eyes and shorter legs, they are far better at spotting the elusive root. Then they use a small hoe to carefully lever up a clod of earth and extract the orange “caterpillar,” still covered in mud — and much more valuable when unbroken.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “Eleven hours a day, from early May to late June, Silang Yangpi and his wife and a large group of relatives and friends crawl along steep mountain slopes, combing through a dizzying tangle of grasses and twigs and wildflowers and sedge, seeking the elusive stalk. When Silang spots one, he shouts with joy. His wife, Yangjin Namo, rushes over. Using a trowel, he carves around the stalk and carefully removes a wedge of soil. He brushes away the excess dirt. And there, in his palm, is what looks like a bright yellow caterpillar. Dead. Attached to its head, unicorn style, is the slender brown fungus. From his pocket Silang removes a red plastic bag that once held dehydrated ramen noodles. He places his find inside, along with the others he and his wife have unearthed, and carefully rolls the bag up. Silang is 25 years old; his wife is 21. They have an infant daughter. The caterpillar fungus represents a significant portion of their annual income.” [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

Selling Caterpillar Fungus in the Local Town

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “At the end of the long picking day, Silang and Yangjin bring their worms to the local market. Serxu’s market, during the height of the season, sprawls along the puddled sidewalks on both sides of the town’s main street. It is customary, in this frontier-feeling place, amid treeless hills speckled with herdsmen’s tents and strung with prayer flags, to dress up for market. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

“Many wear traditional Tibetan coats, the sleeves so long there’s no need for gloves. Men sport wide-brimmed cowboy hats and leather boots. Knives are strapped to waists. Smiles flash with gold teeth. Women strut about in necklaces strung with amber beads the size of golf balls. A few have braided hair that nearly sweeps the sidewalk. There are even a couple of monks, swaddled in vermilion robes. Religious strictures forbid them from picking or eating yartsa, but it’s fine to buy and sell. ++

“Yartsa dealers carry tiny brass-colored scales and solar-powered calculators. The sides of their hands are often smudged with jotted calculations. Worms are piled in cardboard boxes and wicker baskets or spread on pieces of cloth. When a dealer is approached by someone like Silang—knees muddy, with a bag of yartsa fresh from the fields—the worms are carefully examined. Their value depends on a number of factors: size, color, firmness. The dealer handles each one, often scraping off caked dirt with a special yartsa cleaning tool that looks like a large toothbrush. A crowd gathers. ++

“It is also common practice, when preparing to make a purchase, for a yartsa dealer to keep up a steady patter of mild insults. “I’ve never bought such bad worms.” “The color’s no good. Too dark.” “I’m going to lose money on these.” Finally, when it’s time to do business, the dealer holds out his arm, the sleeve of his Tibetan coat dangling. The seller slips his hand inside. Then, using finger signals, the two haggle in the coat sleeve, shielded from the curious eyes of the crowd. It looks as if a thumb-wrestling match is going on in there—offers rapidly made and countered, the coat’s fabric stretching and twisting. When the fingers settle and a price is agreed upon, the money is passed through the sleeve. ++

Silang and Yangjin approach a dealer they’ve worked with before, a man whose name is also Silang—Silang Yixi, 33, in business for eight years. He keeps photos of prized worms on his cell phone. The two Silangs conduct the ritual: the worm examination, the gibes—at one point the dealer returns the worms to the ramen bag and pretends he’s no longer interested—and eventually the haggling. In the end, for their 30 worms, most too small to command top price, Silang and Yangjin are paid 580 yuan, about $90.

Caterpillar Fungus Baron and Her Business

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “Zhaxicaiji steps from her chauffeur-driven Platinum Edition Toyota Sequoia, shoulders her Prada handbag, and strolls, high heels clicking, into the flagship store of her yartsa gunbu empire. She is founder and president of Three Rivers Source Medicine Company, one of China’s best known yartsa brands. She manages 500 employees and 20 stores; annual sales can top $60 million. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

Growing up, Zhaxicaiji, who’s now in her late 40s, was like Silang and Yangjin. She crawled in the hills, picking worms. Her family raised yaks and sheep and lived in a yak-hair tent. She started the business in 1998 with $120 of her own money and rode the yartsa juggernaut to success. She plans to expand internationally, exporting yartsa to places like Japan, Korea, and Malaysia. Within a decade, she says, her worms will be sold in the United States. ++

Her store in the central Chinese city of Lanzhou occupies a full city block; mounted over the entrance is a giant video screen playing commercials advertising her worms. Inside are opulent chandeliers, a trickling fountain, uniformed security guards, and vases of fresh-cut flowers. Her yartsa is exhibited in dozens of museum-style glass cases, the temperature and humidity precisely controlled. ++

“Before a worm arrives here, it may change hands a half dozen or more times. Dealers in frontier markets sell to midsize markets, and those businessmen usually head to China’s biggest yartsa market, which operates year-round, bustling and loud as a stock exchange, encompassing an entire district in Xining, a city just west of Zhaxicaiji’s headquarters. Many of the largest, firmest, most ideally golden worms are selected by Zhaxicaiji’s buyers. Prior to being put on display, all are x-rayed—it’s become common to hide bits of lead wire in worms to increase weight. ++

“A black Mercedes pulls up to her store and four middle-aged men, wearing polo shirts and chunky watches, take seats in front of one of the glass cases. They’re promptly served by a staff of young women in dark skirts, white button-front shirts, and cotton gloves. The men munch on walnuts and raisins and drink yartsa-infused water as they make their selections. The worms are then neatly packaged in maroon wooden boxes with felt interiors and brass clasps, transforming a startlingly unattractive product—a faintly fishy-smelling Cheez Doodle-colored caterpillar with a strange growth emerging from its head—into something practically regal. The boxes are stacked in cloth shopping bags. In a matter of ten minutes the men spend $30,000. ++

Caterpillar Fungus Murders in Nepal

Yarsagumba is the term used in Nepal to describe caterpillar fungus. It also sometimes called Himalayan Viagra. Many poor villagers see “Himalayan Viagra” as a vital source of income. Foraging for the fungus is a major source of income for poor Himalayan communities. A kilo can fetch tens of thousands of dollars in China. The BBC says that although the caterpillar fungus has brought wealth to some regions, it has also brought jealousy and crime and many locals regard it as a curse.

In November 2011, the BBC reported: A court in Nepal has found six men guilty of murdering seven rivals in a fight over a rare caterpillar fungus highly prized as an aphrodisiac.The men from the northern district of Manang were all given life sentences. Thirteen other villagers got two years in jail for their part in the murders. Another 21 defendants were acquitted. [Source: Joanna Jolly, BBC, November 15, 2011 ]

“The so-called "Himalayan viagra" case had made headlines in Nepal. Men from the village of Nar high up in mountains close to the Tibetan border were charged with brutally taking the law into their own hands. "Evidence showed that the six were directly involved in the murder while the rest had provided indirect help," local court official Shambhu Baral told AFP news agency. He said those given two-year sentences had already served their time.

“The court heard how in June 2009 the Nar villagers formed a posse and murdered seven outsiders from low-lying Gorkha district who had come to harvest "yarsagumba". Only two of the Gorkha farmers' bodies were found, thrown down a deep ravine. The local police chief told the BBC he believed the villagers dug up the other five when they realised they were being investigated, cut them into pieces and disposed of them in a fast-flowing river. The trial was concluded in 2010 but verdicts were delayed for months. The Manang area is so remote it took more than a day for the news of the sentencing to emerge.

Decline of Caterpillar Fungus

Caterpillar fungus is becoming scarcer as a result of over harvesting and changes in the Tibetan climate. One peasant told the Los Angeles Times, “When I was young, somebody could just walk out of the tent and dig 800 to 900 pieces in a day. Now we have to hike three hours up the mountains and the best we do is maybe 50 pieces. Even more of a threat to collectors is artificially-cultivated caterpillar fungus, which is already being raised in the United States and sold in China. Many feel that the bubble will burst and the price will fall dramatically when caterpillar fungus starts being cultivated extensively in Asia.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, The "outsize demand sparks concern that the total annual harvest, now roughly 400 million specimens, may diminish as yartsa fields become overpicked. To harvest the worms sustainably, pickers would need to leave some stalks in the soil to mature and infect the next season’s larvae, says ecologist Daniel Winkler. Instead, most villagers harvest every stalk they find and then move on to higher hunting grounds. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “An economic slowdown and anti-corruption campaign in China have depressed prices. Critics say the Chinese government is not doing enough to ensure the harvest is sustainable or to protect that lifeline. Many big Chinese universities have sent researchers, but they just want to know how to cultivate it artificially, to grow it in a lab. They completely ignore what it means for the Tibetan people,” said Winkler.“How to ensure a sustainable harvest is still a big issue, and it’s not addressed. It’s unforgivable how the Chinese government is letting people down.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post July 2, 2016]

“The hunt is not getting any easier, either because the mushroom is becoming scarcer or because there are simply more people looking.Chu’s son Niman Dorje, 13, is the best in the family. He says he used to be able to find 80 Cordyceps on a good day, but nowadays 50 is a very good haul. He says it is not fun at all. “I’d rather be at school.” In February 2016, a new threat emerged when China’s Food and Drug Administration found that powders and tablets made from the fungus contained more than four times the safe limit for arsenic. But in Yushu, dealers insist their product is safe. “It’s because there are a lot of fakes out there,” said one dealer. “Consumers buy it and they find it isn’t working, so that affects business.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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