n late May, when this reporter arrived in Zaduo County, Qinghai Province, the urban area was deserted. The town’s main street, usually crammed with pedestrians and vehicles, was a ghost town except for a couple of patrolling policemen and a few white-capped businessmen. “All the people here, mostly local Tibetans, have gone to the alpine mountains to dig yarsagumba,” a middle-aged man in a white hat surnamed Zhao said with a grimace. Yarsagumba, a unique fusion of a parasitic fungus and its caterpillar host, is a prized ingredient in Chinese medicine.
“We are here every day waiting for them to come back, ready to buy their stuff,” Zhao said, before explaining that anyone in a white hat such as his was a trader or middleman looking to buy the precious ingredient.
Amid this magic realism, urban life on the plateau was completely suspended, stores and restaurants have shuttered, schools have closed and even some government offices have shut down. A visitor to Zaduo today would not believe the empty town is home to more than 40,000 residents. Indeed, each year, at the beginning of summer, when the snow melts and the grass sprouts on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, ethnic Tibetans from all walks of life begin their seasonal journey in search of the valuable fungus in high-altitude pastures.
They set up their camps and scour the alpine ranges inch by inch during the day, returning to their camps in the evening. This cycle runs for almost two months.
Tibetan Gold Rush
On May 22, around lunchtime on a remote mountain slope 50 kilometers south in Sulu, workers carry iron hoes, crawl slowly on their hands and knees, and meticulously scan the ground. Tsering Tsomo, 24, said that she and her husband Tashi Doldin had already collected around 30 yarsagumba that day, which would fetch roughly 1,200 yuan (US$188) on the market. “Every morning, we set off at around 7am and go back to our home tent at the foot of the mountain at around 7 to 8pm,” said Tsering. “The work is tedious, even hazardous and unpredictable, since the quantity and quality of the harvest depends on the weather.”
On a nearby mountain slope, Awa, a young Tibetan man in his 20s, says that on each of the past few days, he had found roughly 50 or 60, totaling some 2,000 yuan (US$310) in income per day. Considering the per capita annual income in Qinghai Province in 2017 was 19,001 yuan (US$2,970), harvesting yarsagumba is so lucrative for local people that they can’t afford to miss the chance.
According to both traditional Chinese medicine and Tibetan medicine pharmacopeia, yarsagumba has been prescribed for centuries for various conditions, including strengthening the function of the lung and kidneys, reviving energy, stopping hemorrhages and decreasing phlegm.
It is endemic to the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, distributed on alpine grasslands above 3,000 meters in China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. Since the 1990s the competition for this medicinal fungus has intensified – it has gained the nickname “Himalayan Viagra’’ and been promoted as a natural aphrodisiac, a tonic with anti-aging effects and even an anti-tumor agent. It has become one of the most expensive biological medicines in the world with a current local market price of up to 300,000 yuan (US$46,900) per kilogram for caterpillar fungus of the highest quality. When sold on the end market to Chinese consumers, the price is far higher than gold.
“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the price for one fungus was four to five yuan [US$0.62-0.78]. Within two decades the price increased by more than 10 times,” said He Yunfeng, who migrated from elsewhere in Qinghai Province and has spent the last 19 years in Zaduo during the caterpillar fungus rush.
Inside China, Qinghai Province and Tibet Autonomous Region are the two major regions where yarsagumba can be found. Zaduo County in Yushu Prefecture, as the source region of two major rivers–the Lancang-Mekong and the Yangtze – is famous for the quality and quantity of its yarsagumba. In recent years, Zaduo has been at the center of a fungus “gold rush,” making it one of the fastest growing economies in Qinghai Province. In 2017 alone, total production of yarsagumba there amounted to 10 tons, accounting for almost 10 percent of total national production. This brought approximately a per capita annual income of 20,000 yuan (US$3,120) to the local population.
“Since I was nine, I followed my parents on this pastureland to dig for yarsagumba, when huge numbers of people from other places were allowed to come,” said Tsering Tsomo. “Now I’m married, and yarsagumba is the only source of income for me and my husband because we have settled in the town. We no longer have any yaks on the grassland.” Today, most young and middle-aged Tibetans here are like Tsering, and rely almost exclusively on income generated by yarsagumba.
Pang Jimin, a local culture expert in Zaduo, told NewsChina that yarsagumba harvesting was once a supplementary income for locals, with livestock husbandry the pillar industry. “Collecting these organisms accounted for about 20 to 30 percent of household income for rural Tibetans in the 1990s,” Pang said. “Due to the booming market and high prices, since the early 2000s it has become the dominant or even only income source for people in Zaduo and elsewhere on the grassland.”
Li Shuangye from Zaduo Animal Husbandry Bureau told NewsChina that total livestock numbers in Zaduo have steadily decreased since the yarsagumba boom.
Statistics provided by Li indicate that by the end of 2017, the total number of livestock in the county including yaks, sheep and goats was less than 410,000, down from more than one million in the late 1990s. “We don’t face an overgrazing problem, on the contrary, to reinforce livestock as our county’s major industry we have tried to encourage our people to maintain their tradition of herding,” Li said.
As the resource has brought profit to Tibetans, the growing dependence of the locals on it has sparked violent confrontations between rival collectors. In particular, an influx of outsiders during the harvest period has provoked deadly conflicts. “There were fights every year in the early 2000s and occasionally people were wounded or even killed,” a local collector in Sulu told NewsChina.
Sulu boasts more than half of the total yarsagumba resource in Zaduo, and historically it has become a hotspot for collectors. Local sources suggest conflicts escalated in 2005 when people from the neighboring county of Nangchen pushed through barricades set up by herders in Sulu. The conflict involved thousands of people and resulted in one death.
Ever since, stronger regulations were enforced and the military was even deployed. “Without regulation and systematic management, local herders will charge permit fees to allow outsiders to enter, posing threats and security risks to the 70,000 people of Zaduo County,” Tsedan Druk, Party secretary of Zaduo, told NewsChina. “So we started to prohibit people from outside Zaduo from coming in and digging yarsagumba during the harvest season, but we allow Zaduo locals who live in areas without yarsagumba to move freely to areas that have it.”
To regulate against overharvesting, the Zaduo government has established strict official seasons for yarsagumba harvesting from May 15 until the end of June. In Sulu, collectors from other parts of Zaduo County are allowed in from May 15 onward, and must leave on June 30 without delay. This year, according to Sulu township head Ga Song, more than 6,000 people from outside Sulu arrived for the harvest season – more than twice the local population of 2,753. To compensate for local people’s lost resources, all collectors from outside Sulu must pay entry fees to get a collection permit. Zaduo County fixes the fee for each collection permit at 1,200 yuan (US$187), while children and the elderly are exempt from paying the fee if they meet certain criteria.
“The total revenue of over seven million yuan (US$1.1m) generated from the entry permits will be later distributed among village members,” Tashi Ningma, Party Secretary of Sulu told NewsChina.“Typically an adult collector can easily recoup the fee after a single day’s digging. It is clear that for the sake of maintaining internal stability and improving the lives of people in Zaduo, Sulu locals are making huge sacrifices.”
Inside Sulu, four major roadblocks and 10 checkpoints on roads and mountain passes control the movement of people from Nangchen County and Tibet. Officials from the county government are sent from their offices to these checkpoints. “Local officials are required to man the checkpoints 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we are on high alert during the harvest season to stop people illegally entering,” said Lobsong Sangding, chief of Sulu Police Station. “No major conflicts have occurred in recent years despite a number of illegal entries through mountain passes from neighboring Nangchen County.” Lobsong added that with effective control of outside collectors, and self-policing by local people, non-locals without entry permits can be quickly and easily discovered before they are persuaded to leave.
For better sustainable management of the resources, the local government stops locals from digging yarsagumgba on the 10th, 15th and 30th day of each Tibetan month. Instead they should collect garbage, do their household chores, go to the county center to restock their supplies, or just rest. “Traditionally, these dates are sacred according to Tibetan Buddhist doctrines, and if people continue to work it will be unlucky. All people obey this rule strictly,” Ge Jia, 22, told NewsChina at his home in Sulu on a rest day in late May.
Although dependence on yarsagumba collection by local Tibetans has increased because of the lucrative income, the quantity of the yarsagumba harvest on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has decreased significantly, locals said.
He Yunfeng, a collector, told NewsChina: “Though the price rocketed during previous decades, the quantity and quality has dwindled. When I first arrived in Zaduo I was 17, and I could dig a total of 5,000 pieces during the summer season. Last year I could barely find 2,000.”
Dingbu Jiangcai, whose family lives in Bajin Valley in Sulu, recalled that 20 years ago an adult could find 100 to 200 yarsagumba a day, but nowadays 60 to 70 was an impressive haul. At his campsite on May 25, Dingbu told NewsChina that the quantity and market price for each year is uncertain. “Changing weather has had a significant impact on the yarsagumba crop. Too much or too little rain or snow can both result in a low harvest.” Scientific studies have found the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is extremely sensitive to global warming, and this warming trend is projected to intensify in the future. Chinese scientists have also found the major distribution area of yarsagumba has moved up to 4,400 to 4,700 meters in elevation, an increase of 200 to 500 meters in the past 30 years. On current trends, this could see the viable range of the fungus reduced by up to 18.5 percent by the year 2050.
Climate change effects, including less snow in winter, an earlier snowmelt in spring and overall warming, are perceived to be major causes of the decline in abundance by most Tibetan caterpillar fungus collectors this reporter interviewed. In addition, destruction of grassland by pikas (small furry mammals) has resulted in severe desertification, further devastating the crop.
In Ni Ga’s view, a senior official in Zaduo, the yarsagumba is both a blessing and a curse for Tibetans. “Generally speaking, I think it has brought more negative impacts than benefits. Depending solely on yarsagumba has made people lazy. With money earned easily, people have squandered their wealth and even gambled it away; it has provoked fights and conflicts among Tibetans. If someday this resource dries up, I fear the people of Zaduo might starve to death, now that so many have completely abandoned their traditional nomadic life,” cautioned Ni.
“The impact on local culture is profound, since people have given up herding, and unfortunately this one-way change cannot be reversed,” said Xu Ming, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
An expert on yarsagumba and climate change, Professor Xu Ming nonetheless added that the resource has contributed to stability in the plateau’s ecological system.
“Due to yarsagumba, local nomads have mostly settled in urban areas, resulting in a reduction of livestock on the grassland, which happened to solve the overgrazing problem that haunted the plateau in the 1980s,” Xu told NewsChina in early June. “Considering the species itself is an important biodiversity resource, I strongly advocate securing the quantity and market price of yarsagumba for the sake of the ecosystem.” This is, according to Xu, also a reason for his team to conduct intensive studies and research to protect and boost the caterpillar fungus industry.
“Existing research is not yet sufficient to prove whether yarsagumba has a high medicinal value, and I think now we still need to defend this fairy tale,” Xu added. Indeed debate on whether yarsagumba is a medicine at all heated up online recently.
For the moment, life will continue in the same way so long as there is a market and a crop. By late afternoon on May 26, a night and a whole morning of snow had fallen. But that didn’t stop Dingbu Jiangcai and his family from gearing up again and heading toward the grassland to continue their harvest.