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Himalayan Viagra declining, warn scientists

Kathmandu, PTI, Feb 1, 2013 23:42 IST
Yarsagumba, commonly known as the “Himalayan Viagra”, with supposed libido-boosting power is under constant decline in India and Nepal due to over-harvesting, scientists warn.

The world’s most expensive medicinal fungus is in serious decline, researchers warn in a study in the journal Biological Conservation.

Known as “Himalayan Viagra” because of its supposed libido-boosting powers, the fungus can fetch as much as USD 100 per gramme on the Chinese market, making it pricier than gold. “There is a similar trend in other Himalayan countries, such as China, India and Bhutan,” says Liu Xingzhong, a mycologist in the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microbiology in Beijing.

On the Tibetan plateau, for instance, the fungus harvest per unit area has dropped by 10–30 per cent compared with three decades ago. The exotic species is often regarded as a symbol of wealth and power in China, and as the country’s economy has boomed, the fungus “has enjoyed unprecedented popularity”, says one of the study’s co-authors, Kamaljit Bawa, a conservation biologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Based on estimates of the volume of trade and average retail prices, Uttam Babu Shrestha, the study’s lead author, puts the global market at between USD 5 billion and USD 11 billion per year.

The high price and rising demand are driving a fungus gold rush in poverty-stricken rural communities in Himalayan countries, but the impact on biodiversity and ecosystems has received little attention until now, says Bawa.

Native to the meadows of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau at 3,000–5,000 metres above sea level, yarsagumba is prescribed in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine. If the caterpillar fungus disappears, says Liu, it could lead to an uncontrolled proliferation of the larvae and moths, triggering a series of changes in the fragile mountain ecosystems.

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