Thursday, March 15, 2012

How the Surging Popularity of 'Himalayan Viagra' Is Causing Murder and Violence in Nepal

I read two pages of this 'different culture' story last night, I'm off to read the other four now.

And if like me, you do a second take when you get to the 'hybrid' part, it's explained a little lower down the page.

How the Surging Popularity of 'Himalayan Viagra' Is Causing Murder and Violence in Nepal

It has become the most expensive herbal remedy in Chinese medicine and it is prized for its reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac that boosts men's sexual prowess.
By Jamie James
March 12, 2012

CHAME, Nepal – In a dim, dusty stockade in this small Himalayan town, Krishna Lama contemplated his ruined life – a dead father, a college career cut short and criminal charges, all because of a potent fungus that promises the vigor of youth and sexual prowess for men. A devout Buddhist, Lama was a 20-year-old college student home on holiday in 2009, when he was compelled to join a posse protecting the lucrative fields near his home village of Nar, at altitude 13,450 feet and a steep two-day trek from the Annapurna trail in the Manang district.

What ensued was one of Nepal’s most gruesome mass killings – over the fungus called yarsagumba.

Fearing their fields had been poached by interloping yarsagumba pickers from Gorkha, a mob from Nar beat two men to death and threw their bodies into a deep crevasse. They rounded up the five other men and savagely beat them to death with sticks and stones. To conceal their crime, they cut the corpses into small pieces, wrapped them in plastic and threw them into a glacial torrent. The killers, 65 men and boys, swore an oath never to tell anyone what happened, not even their wives.

“Yarsagumba brings a curse,” Lama said. “Our entire village has had to suffer. Even my father had to face that fate.”

Two years before the massacre, Lama’s father had died. He, too, was beaten to death with sticks, though the exact circumstances of his murder remain unclear.

Lama’s story – that he was among the last to arrive on the scene and didn’t witness the killings – is corroborated by police, but as he awaited trial, he had no idea whether the court would accept his version of events or if it would be enough to get him acquitted.

The murders have torn the tiny village apart. Interviews with several of the accused in their stockade in Chame and their families in Nar reveal that they are more fearful of the punishment of their souls in the afterlife than of any judgment meted out by a court of law.

“I am cursed,” Lama said. “I have no hope.”

Lama’s story is just one from a gold rush in the Himalayas. Fortunes are being made – and lives are being ruined – not over gleaming metal nuggets, but in the reckless pursuit of yarsagumba. A rare hybrid of caterpillar and mushroom that grows only in the high alpine meadows of Tibet, Nepal and India. It has been prescribed by traditional healers in Asia for centuries to treat lung and kidney diseases, build up bone marrow and stop hemorrhaging, but it is prized above all for its reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac, earning it the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.”

Yarsagumba – also known by its scientific name, Cordyceps sinesis – was unknown in the Western world until 1994, when two female Chinese athletes at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, set new world records for mid- and long-distance running.

The astonishing times they posted gave rise to suspicions that they were using illegal performance enhancers such as anabolic steroids, but post-race drug tests revealed no trace of illegal substances. The runners’ controversial coach, Ma Junren, told foreign reporters that the women got their championship edge from daily doses of Cordyceps.

Thus began the yarsagumba boom. It is difficult to find an accurate estimate of the total production of yarsagumba, owing to the high degree of cross-border smuggling to avoid paying taxes and bribes. But according to Daniel Winkler, a botanist specializing in the fungus, it quickly has become the most expensive herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine.

Winkler estimates the annual yarsagumba harvest at between 85 and 185 tons, and in some areas, the crop represents the most significant source of income for residents, even greater than mining and industrial production. One official in Tibet’s Dengqen County estimated that 37,000 of the area’s 60,000 inhabitants had participated in fungus collection, Winkler reported in a recent scholarly journal.

“Among the wealthy and powerful in China,” Winkler wrote, “Cordyceps has come to rival French champagne as a status symbol at dinner parties or as a prestigious gift.”

The explosive growth in the yarsagumba market beggars the most extravagant superlatives: In 1992, a pound of the stuff sold for $3; today, the same quantity retails for around $9,400.

Nathan Lee, an apothecary in Hong Kong, said he has customers who spend thousands of dollars a month for daily doses of yarsagumba. “They give their children three to seven pieces a day, to promote good health and help them study,” he said. “They mix it with their breakfast cereal.”

The lucrative trade in the mushroom has transformed the economy of the Himalaya region. An ancient, yak-based culture that survived for centuries in one of the most extreme environments on earth is now unraveling in a tragic collision with the global marketplace.

Tibet is the main source of Cordyceps, but the trade may be having its most profound impact on Nepal, where extreme poverty and decades of political instability have led to deepening social entropy.

Rural economies, which had largely converted to tourism in the early 1990s, languished with the steep decline in foreign arrivals after a Maoist insurgency provoked civil war in 1996. That sent adventurous herb hunters into new terrain in search of the golden mushroom.

Harvesting the exotic fungus

Yarsagumba is the result of a bizarre parasitic relationship between fungus and insect. Spores of the Cordyceps mushroom invade and consume the larvae of the Himalayan bat moth, which live underground at altitudes of 10,000 to 16,000 feet for as long as five years, feeding on roots before they commence their metamorphosis into moths.

After the fungal spores have killed and mummified the larvae, they send up a spindly brown stem, a tiny knob-headed mushroom – and then they are very likely to be picked.

There have been many attempts to farm yarsagumba, but none has ever succeeded. The only way the precious fungus can grow is by the fortuitous concurrence of spore and larva in alpine atmospheric conditions – and brave collectors must be willing to risk their lives to collect it.

On a visit to the Annapurna district of Nepal during the midsummer weeks of the prime harvest season, ancient villages stood nearly deserted as most of the able-bodied population headed up to the picking fields. Schools shut down as students dropped out en masse – with the teachers themselves joining in the rush to find instant wealth.

Some 300 men and women, mostly from the Gorkha and Dhading districts, converged on a spectacularly picturesque place called Ice Lake, surrounded by snow-mantled mountains, more than 13,000 feet above the Annapurna trekking trail. Ice Lake is a relatively new collecting site.

Karma Gurung, the 27-year-old manager of a tourist guesthouse in the village of Braga, explained: “The collection of yarsagumba around here began eight years ago. Before that, the yaks got it all. A few local people noticed that the yaks up on the mountainside were more active and started collecting it, but it was still small scale. Now, 90 percent of the people collect yarsagumba.”

The pickers, ranging in age from 15 to 40, with the majority males in their teens and early 20s, set up a temporary tent town as the base for their fungal prospecting.

Few of the collectors were well off enough to bring a proper tent; for most of them, sheets of industrial plastic anchored by rocks would serve as their home for the six to eight weeks of the harvest season. They rose at first light in near-freezing temperatures and ate rice, dal and boiled stinging nettles. By 8 a.m., they were climbing the steep incline to the yarsagumba fields. Go to page 3 of 6


Anonymous said...

Bonsoir mon gros champignon au beurre.

Nouvelles locales. Mx

Himself said...

Yes quite, should give them a bit of flavour I suppose.

I didn't start enjoying mushrooms until I left home. (Mothers)

Like a lot of women of her era, she cooked everything to death, mushrooms being no exception.

So as you might imagine, I wasn't exactly taken with the shrivelled black slugs served up under the general heading of mushrooms.

And as far from little buttered ones as you can possibly get.