Demand for ‘Himalayan Viagra’ Fungus Heats Up, Maybe Too Much this season, with the fungus becoming scarce, the number is down to the hundreds. They still hike from a camp below, carrying metal picks to dig out the fungus, helping to produce an average regional harvest of 135 tons a year.

BAGDANDA, Nepal — From a pasture high in the Himalayas, Tulsingh Rokaya, 55, a shepherd, watched for years as the number of itinerant harvesters swelled.

They came in search of what is known as caterpillar fungus, or yarsagumba in Nepali. A parasitic fungus, it forms out of the head of ghost moth larvae living in the soil at altitudes above 10,000 feet, and has been used as an aphrodisiac for at least a thousand years, earning it the nickname Himalayan Viagra.

In the 1980s, the pickers used to trade the fungus for cigarettes and noodles. But as yarsagumba grew in popularity, it exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry spanning China, Singapore and the United States.

CHINA

Bagdanda

NEPAL

BHUTAN

Kathmandu

BANGLADESH

INDIA

MYANMAR

200 MILES

During the picking season, which runs from late May to July, the number of harvesters in Bagdanda and two neighboring camps has often reached several thousands of people. But this season, with the fungus becoming scarce, the number is down to the hundreds.

They still hike from a camp below, carrying metal picks to dig out the fungus, helping to produce an average regional harvest of 135 tons a year. Occasionally, they stop at Mr. Rokaya’s tent to buy sheep’s curd. Most of the time they pass through, teetering on a steep hillside where they spend the morning hunched over to find the fungus’s crooked black stem poking through the dirt.

Folklore has it that interest in the fungus stems from the startling performance of Chinese runners at an international track meet in 1993, which their coach attributed to their consumption of a soup combining the fungus with turtle blood. (Western competitors suspected something less exotic, namely performance-enhancing drugs.)

Photo

Tibetan nomad women cleaned caterpillar fungus at a market in May on the Tibetan Plateau, where selling the fungus has become a primary source of income. CreditKevin Frayer/Getty Images

With prices topping $50,000 a pound in China’s coastal megacities, harvesting of the fungus has helped to curb endemic poverty in the Himalayas, which stretch across Nepal, northern India, Bhutan, Tibet and China. For hundreds of thousands of people living in remote villages, selling yarsagumba has become a primary source of income.

A study by Nepal’s central bank found that harvesters earned an average of about $2,500, or 56 percent of their yearly income, selling the fungus. Money from yarsagumba has given some of the world’s most impoverished people access to electricity, hospital care and education.

“The whole Tibetan plateau is by now completely dependent on the cash influx,” said Daniel Winkler, a mycologist who has studied the caterpillar fungus extensively in Tibet. He estimated that over one million people in Tibet sell the fungus.

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But as quickly as demand for the fungus has surged, its supply has dropped sharply. Mycologists studying the fungus point to overharvesting as one reason. But another possible cause, some researchers now believe, is a warmer ecosystem precipitated by climate change, a phenomenon that may be more acute at higher altitudes.

“There are strong theoretical reasons as to why we might expect the rate of climate change to be faster higher up in the mountains than it is at sea level,” said Nicholas Pepin, a geographer at the University of Portsmouth in England.

Some of the most compelling data comes from the Tibetan plateau, where from 2001 to 2012, the increase in temperatures was between half a degree Fahrenheit and nearly an entire degree at weather stations above 10,000 feet. In the same decade, global temperatures rose by only about 0.2 degrees.

Photo

Tibetan and Chinese buyers look at caterpillar fungus for sale at a market on the Tibetan plateau in May. Demand in China alone has created a booming industry for the fungus, which sells for up to $50,000 a pound.CreditKevin Frayer/Getty Images

Scientists say it is unclear why mountain ranges may be warming more rapidly than other parts of the planet. But Kamaljit Bawa, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said failure to better understand warming in the Himalayas could have serious consequences for the region’s unique biodiversity.

“We have to make very rapid progress,” he said. “We can’t use the slow approach, the traditional, slow scientific approach.”

Not for yarsagumba, apparently.

As harvesters returned from the pastures to Bagdanda on a recent afternoon, children gathered in the camp’s dusty thoroughfare and divided teams for a volleyball game. A mother held down her squirming daughter to pick lice from her scalp. Men congregated on trash-strewn dirt mounds and peeled strips of kutki, an herb used to treat vomiting and fever.

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In a village below the meadows, Prithvi Budha, 60, a beekeeper who is sitting out the harvest to watch dozens of empty mud and stone huts, said less precipitation might be the cause for the drop in yarsagumba supplies.

“We used to have snow up to here and up to here,” he said, pointing to his torso and his shoulders as he recalled a string of childhood winters.

Uttam Shrestha, a researcher at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, said it was difficult to say why the supply of yarsagumba had dropped. Changes in temperature, he said, could be one of several factors affecting the supply of the fungus.

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“We can draw some inferences,” he said. “Here, the fungus is very sensitive to the increase in temperature and so that could have an impact, but there is no empirical evidence yet.”

Jir Bahadur Budha, 43, a farmer, said he was disappointed with this year’s harvest. He estimated that his family of six would collect only 400 pieces of yarsagumba, 200 fewer than last year and 500 fewer than the year before. The selling price for a single piece is about $3.50 in Nepal.

On a recent morning, Mr. Budha joined dozens of others in a pasture as a heavy fog set in. Within 10 minutes of searching, calls echoed from a few hundred feet away, where a teenager had spotted one of the day’s first pieces. Clawing away dirt from the larva’s body, the boy received a smattering of congratulations. He had found a good piece.

“Only lucky people find yarsagumba in the morning,” one man said.

Mr. Rokaya, the shepherd, was cautious in his appraisal of the day’s pickings. Whatever the reason for the decline in yarsagumba, he said, it may be too late to salvage what has been lost.

“No jobs. No money. What to do?” he said, thrumming his fingers on a gnarled cane. “We eat the rice that even donkeys and horses don’t eat.”

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