Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Yarsagumba: Curse of Himalayan Annapurna region

January 6, 2011

By Joanna Jolly BBC News, Kathmandu

4 January 2011 Last updated at 19:21 ET

The Himalayan mountain range that straddles the border between Nepal and
Tibet is known as one of the most beautiful and remote places in the world.

Every year, thousands of tourists come here to trek on the Annapurna
circuit which takes them high into the snowy mountains to climb passes
over 5,000m (16404ft).

This isolated and barren landscape is home to Buddhist communities who
have lived, farmed and traded here for centuries.

But in the last few years, this peaceful region has been rocked by
jealousy, crime and murder.

All this is down to Yarsagumba, the small, fragile, mummified body of
the Himalayan bat moth caterpillar that has been invaded by a fungus -
and which is famous throughout the Himalayas as a powerful medicine.

'A sin'

As the freezing night falls in the Himalayan village of Humde, Sangay
Gurung and his wife huddle around their fireside, preparing a supper of
rice and vegetables.

Sangay tells me he can sell me some Yarsagumba.

He has some of this precious substance because his son has collected it.
But he is not happy handling it.

"We believe it's a sin to trade in Yarsagumba," he says.

"In our Buddhist culture we're not supposed to pick it - that's our
tradition.

"My grandparents told me this and I obeyed them. I'm 53 now and I've
never picked it. But the young generation is different. They don't
believe in sin or religion so they're making money from it."

For the past 500 years, Yarsagumba (Cordyceps sinensis), has been prized
as an aphrodisiac by the Chinese.

It can be found in the high pastures of the Himalayas above 3,500m, and
is traditionally picked in early spring before the monsoon rains.

'Great aphrodisiac'

Each year, hundreds of Tibetan traders cross the border illegally into
Nepal to buy Yarsagumba from local villagers and sell it back to China.
One kilogram can fetch up to $10,000.

"The medical properties of Yarsagumba are numerous and many," says
Carroll Dunham, a medical anthropologist who has worked in Nepal for the
past 25 years.

"Yarsagumba is known as an immune booster. It's also known as a great
aphrodisiac.

"It works in a way similar to Viagra. It's considered to be helpful for
impotence in men and it's considered to be a great stimulant."

This has meant that Yarsagumba has become the most valuable commodity in
this remote region that has few economic opportunities.

It has become so lucrative that the district government now operates a
permit system for those who want to collect Yarsagumba.

In certain areas, the permits are more expensive for people from outside
the region. In others, outsiders are completely banned from searching
for the drug.

Turf war

For some mountain villagers, the chance to collect Yarsagumba has
brought great wealth. But for others, it has brought great misery.

In June 2009, seven men from the low-lying Gorkha region of Nepal who
came to the mountains to pick Yarsagumba were murdered by a local mob
protecting their turf.

The men were attacked with sticks and knives and their bodies thrown
into deep mountain ravines.

Nal Prasad Upadhay was the police officer in charge of the investigation.

"It was a very big operation. More than 80 police personnel were
mobilised in that case," he says.

"Two bodies were collected from a very difficult place - the police had
to use ropes to recover them. We couldn't find the other five bodies."

Thirty-six men from the remote village of Nar were arrested for the
crime and are still waiting for a verdict.

Barren

There isn't a prison big enough to hold them in the mountain region, so
they are being kept in a converted district education office in the
village of Chame.

In the last few months, 17 men were let out on bail. The rest spend
their time behind barbed wire, playing cards and basketball, and depend
on their relatives to bring them food.

"I think my brother will be freed very soon," says Samma Tsering, who
visits the prison daily.

"Whenever I meet him, he says that he hasn't done anything wrong."

Since her brother was arrested, Samma's life has become focused on
supporting him.

Because most of the men from her village are in this jail, there is no
one left behind to work.

"Our land is barren now," she says.

"There is no one to plough the fields so we haven't been able to grow
anything for two years. Women who know how to do the men's work are
somehow managing but most of them can't."

A verdict in the case of the Yarsagumba murders is expected in February.

 From March, the Yarsagumba picking season will start again and hundreds
of locals will scour the mountainsides searching for the valuable drug
in the hope that they will make their fortune.

But for many who live here, Yarsagumba is not a blessing but a curse.
And they remember the old Buddhist saying that it will bring nothing but
bad luck.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank