160px Weighing Caterpillar fungus Himalayan Viagra Taking Its Toll On Nepal Enviornment

Weighing the fungus

The native name of “Himalayan Viagra” from Nepal is “yartsa gunbu.” It is an organic substance made when a fungus infects underground caterpillars in the Himalayan Mountains at an elevation of about 4300 feet. The fungus actually mummifies the caterpillars.

After mummification, the caterpillar protrudes and looks like a small chili pepper sticking up from the ground. It is then harvested, primarily during the months of May and June. When the protruding part is found, a six inch diameter hole is dug and the mummified caterpillar is removed from the soil.

Benefits of Yartsa Bunbu

Yartsa bunbu has been used to treat exhaustion, pulmonary disease and even as an antibiotic. It has no side effects and it seems to be impossible to overdose on it. For years, in the Himalayan culture, it has been used as an aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant, which is why it recently was nicknamed Himalayan Viagra.

Yartsa bunbu is used in many countries as a treatment for impotence or erectile dysfunction. In the never-ending pursuit to find a natural way of treating ed, the harvesting of Himalayan Viagra is creating what some have referred to as the new “Gold Rush.”

Ecological Concerns

Many harvesters are native to Nepal where the annual income is less than $290. The idea of earning between $13,000 and $36,000 for 500 grams of yartsa bunbu has inspired the natives to flock in large numbers to the Dolpal district to harvest the fungus. More than 40,000 people are expected next harvest season.

The large number of harvesters is taking a toll on the environment. The formerly lush, grassy hillsides are becoming more like desert regions. The major problems are:

  • The hills are torn up by the harvesters. For each piece of fungus, holes approximately six inches in diameter are dug.
  • This hole-digging destroys the pasture land. Yaks and other animals are dying because there is no grass left for them to graze on.
  • Harvesters are cutting down trees to make fires to cook their food and keep them warm at night.
  • Harvesters are defecating openly in the fields and damaging the soil.
  • Harvesters are also just abandoning their trash.
  • Over-harvesting is depleting the supply. Ten years ago, a villager was able to harvest several kilos. Now, that same villager may only find a few potato chip size pieces.

Possible Solutions

  1. The government has imposed a tax on the harvesters. Local villagers must pay the equivalent of $11 a season while outsiders pay $33. The idea was that this would limit the number of harvesters and the money raised would be used for food for the villagers and environmental protection measures. This plan seems to have back-fired. The tax indicates that there is a lot of value to harvesting the fungus and has attracted more harvesters instead of fewer.
  2. Educating the harvesters as to the danger of over-harvesting and keeping the environment protected is an important step. They need to learn that the way they are treating the land will result in depletion of the resource.
  3. Establishing a definite “collection season” with beginning and ending dates will exercise some control and prevent premature harvesting as well as over-harvesting.

As the resource is depleted, the demand for it is increasing. Yartsa gunbu sold for twice as much this year as it did the previous year. Ecologist and geographer Daniel Winkler says that future harvests are contingent on “collection intensity, rainfall and climate change.”

The government cannot control the rainfall and climate change, but it needs to regulate the collection intensity or the resource will become extinct.

Image credit: Wikipedia