In alternative medicine, much like everything else in life, sex sells. Which has let to a major market in traditional aphrodisiacs. Although medications such as sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra) and tadalafil (Cialis) are routinely prescribed for erectile dysfunction these days, they actually do little for the libido. To fill the gap, there is a flourishing trade in various traditional and non-traditional aphrodiacs which supposedly boost sexual desire (often as a result of the placebo effect). Along with assorted herbal compounds including Spanish Fly, arugula, saffron and ginseng, various animal products with rumoured aphrodisiac properties have led to the extinction or near-extinction of different tiger and rhinoceros subspecies across much of Asia and Africa.
While not as well known as other aphrodisiacs, the caterpillar fungus orphiocordyceps sinensis has developed a reputation all its own. Primarily found in the Tibetan plateau bordering China, India, Nepal and Bhutan, the fungus germinates in several species of caterpillars found in the region. After killing and mummifying the host, the parasitic fungus then grows from the caterpillar's forehead into a mushroom that is high prized for its medicinal properties. Known as yarsagumba or yartsa gunbu in Tibet and dong chong xia cao in China, the mushroom has gained the informal nickname of
"Himalayan viagra" and is used for treating impotence and fatigue in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine. Virtually unknown to Western medicine before 1993, yarsagumba gained international prominence during the Beijing National Games when several athletes breaking world records were found to be taking it.
The growing demand for yarsagumba has made it a major source of income in rural Tibet. Although the laborious work involved in hand collecting the fungi has limited actual production to an estimated 100 to 200 tons per year, the extreme demand leads hundreds of Tibetan traders to cross the border with Nepal illegally each year to buy yarsagumba for sale in China. Since one kilogram can fetch as much as $10,000 US, local authorities set up a permit system to regulate yarsagumba production and outsiders are often banned from collecting the rare fungus.
Unfortunately, with strong demand comes inevitable tension with local gangs protecting their territories from outside yarsagumba hunters. In June 2009, seven men from Nepal's Gorkha region were murdered after crossing into the Annapurna mountain circuit to collect yarsagumba. In what was apparently a case of vigilant justice, dozens of men from the remote village of Nar attacked their victims with sticks and knives and then threw their bodies into a deep mountain ravine. Only two of the bodies have been successfully recovered while the rest have never been found. It remains unclear whether the bodies are still in the ravine or have been removed and thrown in the river by villagers attempting to conceal the crime.
In what has turned out to be one of the largest murder cases in that region's history, more than eighty police officers were mobilized to carry out mass arrests. Since the local jail wasn't large enough to hold all of the accused, a district education office in a local village was converted to a makeshift jail and seventeen defendants have since been released on bail. The rest are being kept behind barbed wire and rely on family members to bring them food. The case has brought financial hardship for the family members of the accused who say that all of the able-bodied men in their village have been arrested. Samma Tsering, whose brother is being held, stated that, "our land is barren now. 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."
For many of the families, the ploughing may never resume. In a verdict that has received international publicity, six of the defendants have received life sentences for their role in the killings. An additional thirteen villagers received two years in jail while the rest were acquitted. According to a local court official, the six receiving life sentences were found to have participated in the murder directly while the others provided indirect help.
In the meantime, the prosperity that yarsagumba cultivation has brought to the region is also turning out to be a curse. As the demand for "Himalayan viagra" continues to foster competition for the rare fungus, violence remains a grim possibility.