Caterpillar fungus growth in Tibet nearing exhaustion, warn Chinese experts

(, Sep25, 2013)  The growth of caterpillar fungus, popular as a miracle herbal drug and supplement growing on alpine soil 3,000 to 5,000 above sea level, could die out on the Tibetan Plateau in two decades as a result of over-exploitation, China’s official Xinhua news agency Sep 24 cited Chinese experts as saying. Its seasonal harvest has not only been a rare source of good income for local Tibetans but there have also been deadly clashes among them at places over harvesting territory.

The report noted that when the harvest season ended this summer, many diggers had not found enough fungus to be able to even cover their costs. The main cost, which varies from 5,000 to as high as 50,000 yuan (US$817 to 8,170), is in the form of fees levied by local authorities in accordance with acreage where the Tibetans are allowed to dig.

Karma Daqung, a fungus expert and former manager of a state-owned farm in Yushu Prefecture of Qinghai Province, has said, “Even the luckiest diggers collect no more than 20 stalks a day.” This differed sharply from the situation ten years ago when, he has added, the plateau was rich in this “worm grass” (Tibetan: Yartsa-Gunbu, or summer grass, winter worm) and diggers could harvest more than 5 kilograms a day.

“Back then, a seven-member family could earn 400,000 yuan in the harvest season, though fungus dealers paid them only 2,000 yuan per kilo,” he has said. But today, the fungus price has soared to as high as 300,000 yuan per kilo and large crowds of avid diggers from Yushu and other Tibetan communities in western China flood in every summer, he has added.

The rush to collect the worm grass is so intense that most residents, including children and elderly, join the rush every year, with even schools being closed in May and June to enable students and teachers to join in the harvesting, the report said.

The harvesting season has also been prolonged from the normal 60-day period to more than 70 days, causing severe damage to the growth cycle of the fungus, Li Yuling, a botanist who concentrates on caterpillar fungus studies at Qinghai Academy of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, has been cited as saying.

Across the Tibetan Plateau, research by Li’s academy has been reported to show that the average fungus output reported in 12 major fungus production bases in Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai and Sichuan was less than 10 percent of the 1980 volume. “In the most-exploited regions, fungus output has shrunk to 2 percent of the 1980 figure,” Li has added.

She has added that in some parts of Qinghai, where the bulk of the PRC’s caterpillar fungus is grown, fungus reserves were only 3 to 10 percent of the 1980 volume.

In Qinghai’s Yushu, Golog and Hainan prefectures, she has said, the average number of moth larvae per square metre had halved from 2005 to 2012.

Once the reserves become extinct, which could happen in 20 years, it would be difficult to restore the precious worm grass because China is yet to build reserves of moth larvae and the fungus species, Li has added.

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