The ‘viagra of the Himalayas’ a fungus more expensive than gold, endangered by climate change

'Viagra del Himalaya'A parasitic caterpillar fungus known as ‘Himalayan viagra’, which grows wild in the highest mountain range in the world and is more valuable than gold when considered as a medicine, could disappear if current climatic and crop trends continue for its commercial increase.

This is confirmed by three researchers from the Stanford and Colorado State University (United States) in a study published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’.

This fungus (‘Ophiocordyceps sinensis’) survives by lodging in caterpillars of phantom moths (‘Hepialus humuli’) until they are killed little by little in some of the highest reaches of the Himalayas and can be found in a bowl of allegedly healing aphrodisiac soup made in Las Vegas with a few grams and at a price close to 600 euros.

The demand for this fungus as an aphrodisiac, cure for impotence and remedy for the deadly virus of severe acute respiratory syndrome or cancer helped boost its global trade from the 1990s. Although it grows from scientifically proven benefits, people They boil that fungus in water to make tea or add it to soups and stews. They think it cures everything.

Since then, that belief in a wide range of healthy effects of the fungus has driven a market valued at some 9,600 million euros while crops have become unsustainable due to climate change. Not in vain, has sold for 120,000 euros per kilo in Beijing (China) in 2017, which tripled the price of gold.

The official records of the ‘Himalaya viagra’ harvest are unreliable because much of their trade goes through illegal channels. The new study presents the most complete data to date on whether its production could be declining and the possible consequences of a possible fall in the communities that depend on the fungus for their subsistence.

Source of income

Eric Lambin, professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University, became interested in the fungus to understand what happens when a specialized biological product gives rich consumers a great influence on rural livelihoods, the options of using the land and the ecosystems of the producing regions.

Research on the degradation of ecosystems tends to focus on the expansion of agricultural products that are traded internationally, such as oil palm, soybeans, cattle and timber, which are the main drivers of deforestation. The dominant effects of products traded on a smaller scale are less known, but they can be potentially profound.

Lambin cites the rhinoceros horns as an example: “A species of emblematic mammal is becoming extinct due to the demand for a product that, in some traditional cultures, is considered to have virtues.”

The ‘viagra of the Himalayas’ may lack the charisma of a rhinoceros, but, as one of the most expensive biological products in the world, it has become a major source of income for hundreds of thousands of collectors .

According to Lambin, there is no doubt that intensive collection affects both people and the environment in an increasingly vulnerable landscape. While many local harvesters try to minimize impacts, large influxes of people attracted to the Himalayan grasslands during the harvest season may end up degrading ecosystems by disturbing fragile soils, cutting strips of shrubs and trees to obtain fuel, and leaving trash around of the crops.

‘Gold of the Himalayas’

Widely known in Tibet as ‘yartsa gunbu’ or ‘summer grass, winter worm’, the fungus has been used in traditional medicine throughout the Himalayan region and in China for centuries to treat diseases ranging from cancer and kidney disease until inflammation and aging. Recently it has earned the nicknames of ‘viagra of the Himalayas’ or ‘gold of the Himalayas’.

To overcome the problem of the scattered commercial data of this valuable mushroom, the researchers turned to the knowledge of the collectors about the production trends in China, Bhutan, Nepal and India. Then they interviewed 49 collectors on the Tibetan plateau.

With these data and 400 records of where the fungus has been found in these four countries since the 1970s, the group constructed models that predict how much fungi would grow in a given area based on factors such as climate and height. The results show that the fungus tends to be more prolific in higher and colder areas around the margins of the underlying areas by permafrost .

Currently, the fungus is abundant enough in prime production areas in the spring that many people can gather enough in a month or two to maintain it for the rest of the year. However, production is already declining due to intensive harvesting and warmer winters may be exacerbating that trend.

In a region where winter temperatures in some places have already risen to 4ºC since 1979 (“a huge amount of warming,” emphasizes Lambin) the researchers indicate that each degree of winter warming makes it harder for the fungus to thrive.

As the permafrost disappears from the lower elevations, the fungus can adapt by changing to the colder habitats of the heights only if its caterpillars, and the vegetation and seasonal patterns on which they depend, also change.

However, if demand continues to grow as harvests decline, tensions could worsen over who has access to harvest areas , says Kelly Hopping, a researcher at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. .

“According to the collectors in four countries, the production of fungi in caterpillars has decreased due to habitat degradation, climate change and, especially, over exploitation. Our statistical models corroborate that climate change is contributing to this decline. They indicate that the fungus of the caterpillar is more productive in cold conditions and grows near the areas that probably have permafrost. With a significant warming already underway for much of its range, we conclude that caterpillar fungus populations have been adversely affected by a combination of overexploitation and climate change, “the researchers conclude.

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