“Himalayan Viagra” — the World’s Costliest Fungus — Is Added to IUCN Red List

Yartsa gunbu (Cordyceps Sinensis) sliced in half .       Photo: Daniel Winkler, NPR

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

This week Shivani Azad reported in Times of India that the “world’s costliest fungus,” Ophiocordyceps sinensis, was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as a “vulnerable” species. The fungus, better known as “Himalayan Viagra,” yields profits on the global market between $5 billion and $11 billion  — in traditional Chinese medicine, it is a panacea for a  wide variety of medical issues, including as an aid to sexual performance. The fungus is found in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Bhutan, India, China, and Tibet, and is largely consumed in China. The harvesting of the fungus, according to India’s forest department, “pose[s] a serious threat to the sensitive ecology of the region.”

Why This Matters: On the one hand, as the study noted, these harvesting practices will impact climate change in the upper Himalayas, a region extremely sensitive to ecological changes. But on the other hand, as the Kathmandu Post reported, the fungus is the main source of income for many families in the Himalayan regions. As one collector said candidly, “We will die of hunger if we don’t collect [the root] this season.” The story of Himalayan Viagra demonstrates the need for a people-centered conservation strategy that thinks not only of the region’s survival, but also on the people dependent on the land’s resources.

Been There, Done That

Already this year, the harvesting of the fungus, known as yarsagumba, was banned in certain fungus-growing regions in Nepal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as during harvest season “tens of thousands of people swarm over the Himalayan foothills in Rukum, Dolpa, and Bajhang districts in western Nepal to collect the herb.” In light of the global pandemic, the COVID-19 Crisis Management Committee in the Bajhang District prohibited the collection of the fungus this year, in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Many collectors in the affected regions protested the decision, collecting the fungus in spite of the prohibition. As one collector Ganesh Bohara told the Kathmandu Post, “We are defying the ban to go pick the herb because if we don’t then we will have nothing to eat next year. We will take the risk of going to prisons.” In light of the response, some municipalities have decided to lift the ban, while others have not, imposing a hefty fine on those who collect the plant. The fact that a ban on collection has already failed in Nepal due to concerns about survival suggests the way similar prohibitions will go, if measures are not made to protect the livelihoods and economic conditions of collectors.

Impact of the Red List

According to the study, as the Times of India wrote, the “excessive extraction and burning of large quantities of wood at sensitive areas may result in many unintended consequences for the overall ecology of the area, local weather, and even glaciers which are already feeling the impact of climate change.” By placing the fungus on the IUCN red list, the IUCN hopes, as a representative told the Times of India, that “proper government policies [will be] implemented in order to conserve it so that it remains in the wild.” As the report noted, the “mean annual harvest of this species has declined in many if not all of the areas across its range,” including a 37% decline in the Gurjakhani area of Nepal.

Many governments had already taken action prior to the fungus’ placement on the red list. As the IUCN noted, in Bhutan and certain regions in China, “collection is restricted to the local indigenous human population,” and in certain places, there are restrictions on the number of members of a family who can collect the herb. Bhutan in particular has focused on the conservation of the herb through market-regulation and educational measures. However, according to the report, there is “some pessimism” that measures like these have actually had an impact on the sustainability of the collection.

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