Ophiocordyceps sinensis (caterpillar fungus)

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2018: a victim of climate change, over-exploitation

Ruchika Uniyal, (With inputs from Shivani Azad), ‘Himalayan Viagra’ is under threat from climate change, October 24, 2018: The Times of India

Popular across the world as the ‘Himalayan Viagra’, a yellow-brown mummified caterpillar (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) which can now fetch up to three times the price of gold in some parts, is becoming rarer to find as a result of climate change and over-exploitation due to surge in demand, scientists have found.

A new study published in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, a peerreviewed US journal, revealed that “significantly” warmer winters across all caterpillar fungus habitats in India, Nepal and Bhutan might be making it difficult for the fungus to survive and threatening the livelihood of communities that traditionally depend on this niche commodity. “Using data spanning nearly two decades we found that caterpillar fungus production is declining throughout much of its range,” the researchers said.

Commonly known as 'keeda jadi' in India, the aphrodisiac is illegally smuggled to Nepal and China where it finds a booming market due to its use in medicine, including as a cure for cancer. In fact, in Beijing, where it is used as an anti-impotence drug, the prized commodity is now fetching thrice the price of gold. In India as well, collectors have reported sky-rocketing prices for the fungus — from Rs 100 a piece three years ago to Rs 500 per piece today.

Ophiocordyceps sinensis, famous as yarchagumba in Tibet, is found above an elevation of 11,500 feet and grows as a parasite on the larvae of a particular caterpillar, killing and mummifying it. It requires winter temperatures below zero degrees to grow. For the study, researchers led by those from Stanford University interviewed over 800 harvesters, collectors and traders in the Himalayan region, many of whom camp for months in alpine meadows in May and June, just as snow begins to melt, revealing the cone-shaped fungus.

In the new study, collectors reported that fungus production has decreased. While gatherers in central Tibet reported warming and drying trends that have affected caterpillar fungus production, collectors in Nepal cited decreasing winter snow, earlier spring snowmelt and warming as causes that have hit production.Another reason behind gradual disappearance of the fungus is overexploitation, the study found.

Dr G S Rawat, dean, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, told TOI on Tuesday, “Over-harvesting of the species has contributed to its disappearance. There is an urgent need to regulate keeda jadi extraction.”


2020: on IUCN list of Threatened Species

Shivani Azad, July 13, 2020: The Times of India

IUCN said Himalayan Viagra’s spread has declined by at least 30% over the past 15 years due to overharvesting. The fungus sells locally for around Rs 10 lakh per kg and goes on to be sold in international markets like China
From: Shivani Azad, July 13, 2020: The Times of India

The world’s costliest fungus — Ophiocordyceps sinensis — also known as Himalayan Viagra, which sells in international markets for upwards of Rs 20 lakh per kg, has entered the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species. The list which was released on July 9, has placed the fungus, known for its aphrodisiac and rejuvenation properties, in the ‘vulnerable’ category.

Citing the reason for placing the fungus in the vulnerable category, IUCN said “its spread has declined by at least 30% over the past 15 years as a result of overharvesting.” The fungus, also known as keeda jadi in Uttarakhand because of its caterpillar-like appearance, is endemic to the Himalayan and Tibetan plateau and is found in China, Bhutan, Nepal and India. In India, it is primarily found in Uttarakhand in the higher reaches of districts like Pithoragarh and Chamoli.

Speaking to TOI, Vivek Saxena, India representative of IUCN, said, “The purpose of putting the fungus in the Red List under the ‘vulnerable category’ is to ensure that proper government policies are implemented in order to conserve it so that it remains in the wild.”

Meanwhile, the inclusion in the Red List is going to impact hundreds of villagers of Uttarakhand who were dependent on collecting the fungus as their primary source of livelihood. The fungus sells locally for around Rs 10 lakh per kg and goes on to be sold in international markets like China (where it is highly prized) at upwards of Rs 20 lakh per kg.

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