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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 SARS and AIDS and treatment for everything from impotence to aging. Among those that swear by it is the basketball player Yao Ming.

Caterpillar fungus is a parasitic fungus that envelopes and kills the Himalayan bat moth caterpillar and feeds on it mummified body. Less disgusting than it sounds, 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 $3 and it in turns commands as much as $10 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 and yarsagumba in Nepal, it is found in the high mountains and plateaus of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet. It is considered a medicinal mushroom in Oriental medicines and is famous throughout the Himalayas.

Tibet and Yunnan Province is 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 pharmacy and airport gifts ship for $200 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

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “The fungus is called yartsa gunbu. Translated from Tibetan, this means “summer grass, winter worm,” although it is technically neither grass nor worm. 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 ++]

According to 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. [Source: == ] 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.

Health Benefits of Caterpillar Fungus

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caterpillar fungus
Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “For centuries yartsa gunbu has been thought to possess miraculous medicinal and libidinous powers. Yaks that graze on it, legend holds, grow in strength tenfold. One of the earliest known descriptions of yartsa comes from a 15th-century Tibetan text, titled An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities, which raves about the “faultless treasure” that “bestows inconceivable advantages” on those who ingest it. 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. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

“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. ++

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

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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.

Need for Scientific Studies of Caterpillar Fungus

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. But critics say the studies have been small and the methodology suspect. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

“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.

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.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “Across the Tibetan Plateau, these creatures have transformed the rural economy. They’ve sparked a modern-day gold rush. In fact, by the time the contents of Silang’s bag arrive at the gleaming shops of Beijing, they can easily be priced at more than twice their weight in gold. As the Chinese economy roars, demand for yartsa has intensified—it’s become a status symbol at dinner parties and the gift of choice to flatter government officials. In the 1970s a pound of worms cost a dollar or two. In the early ’90s it was still less than a hundred dollars. Now a pound of top-quality yartsa can retail for $50,000. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

“Such 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. ++

“Due to the annual yartsa windfall, thousands of formerly impoverished Tibetan yak herders own motorcycles and 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, where a small percentage of the world’s yartsa is picked. 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. ++

Hunting for Caterpillar Fungus

A mother assisted by her two daughters can earn $6,000 a season, triple what most Chinese families earn and enough for a peasant to build a new house. Locals clash with Han Chinese and Hui Muslims over the best places. Some road are roped off by police to keep outsiders from entering. Every year a few people are killed in turf battles.

The caterpillar fungus 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.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “The thing Silang is searching for, on hands and knees, 15,000 feet above sea level on the Tibetan plateau, is extraordinarily strange. The part that’s above ground is a tiny, capless fungus—just a brown stalk, thin as a matchstick, poking an inch or two out of the muddy soil. 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. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, August 2012 ++]

“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.” ++

“There are now places, like the town of Serxu—home to Silang and his wife—where, when the ground warms and the grass sprouts, all else in life is abandoned to the pursuit of yartsa. Children, with keen eyes and low-to-the-ground statures, are often the best pickers. Some school systems, helpless against the lure of the worms, close for a one-month yartsa holiday. ++

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. ++

How Caterpillar Fungus Has Changed Tibet

“After we've finished heaping bowls of rice with greens and hunks of yak meat, the head of the household pulls out a blue metal box, unlocks it, pries open the lid, and motions for us to have a look,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “ Inside are hundreds of dead caterpillars. “Yartsa gompo,” our host says proudly. Each dried caterpillar, he explains, will sell for between four and ten dollars. There's probably ten grand in dead caterpillars in his padlocked blue box. Yartsa gompo called chong cao in China’is a parasite-infected caterpillar that lives only in grasslands above 10,000 feet. The parasite, a kind of fungus, kills the caterpillar, then feeds on its body.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

“Every spring Tibetan nomads wander their yak meadows with a small, curved metal trowel looking for the caterpillars. Poking up less than an inch, the purplish, toothpick-shaped yartsa gompo stem is extremely difficult to spot—but the caterpillars are worth more than all their yaks combined. In Chinese medicine shops throughout Asia, chong cao is sold as a cure-all for the ravages of aging, for health issues ranging from infection to inflammation, fatigue to phlegm to cancer. Displayed in climate-controlled glass cases, the highest quality caterpillars sell for nearly $80 a gram, which is about twice the price of today's gold. The Tibetan closes his treasure box and tucks it into the side of his tent. Before we depart, he insists we have one more cup of burning yak butter tea.”

As we ride off across the high plains, I am struck by the irony of this new commerce along the old Tea Horse Road. Tibetans no longer ride horses, and tea is no longer the primary drink in urban Tibet (Red Bull and Budweiser are everywhere). And yet, just as tea still comes from traditional regions of China, chong cao can be found only on the Tibetan Plateau. Shoes and shampoos, TVs and toasters may be pouring westward along the paved portions of the ancient trade route, but something is going back east. Today the Chinese are willing to pay as dearly for magic caterpillars as they once did for invincible horses.”

Caterpillar Fungus Problems

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.

The money made from collecting the fungus is a problem, 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.

“Himalayan Viagra' (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.

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 December 2013

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