Climate change spells doom for 'Himalayan Viagra'

A Himalayan biological species, which is three times more expensive than gold and generate a global trade of $ 11 billion every year, faces death threat from climatic changes sweeping over the mountain and over-exploitation, scientists have found.

China, India, Nepal and Bhutan are the world's only producers of caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), better known as Himalayan Viagra.

One of the world’s most valuable biological commodities whose prices are comparable to gold, diamond and platinum, collection of the fungus from the caterpillar is a crucial source of income for hundreds of collectors.

But scientists now reported a noticeable drop in its production, which the collectors attribute due to habitat degradation, climate change and commercial pressure. There is no laboratory-grown alternative to the material.

Traditionally used in Chinese medicines, the demand for caterpillar fungus experienced a surge in recent years primarily among urban Chinese consumers.

Its price jumped by about 20% each year between 1997 and 2012 and by 2017 high-quality pieces are sold for more than $ 140,000 per kilogram in Beijing, more than three times the price of gold.

While China remains its biggest supplier because of the huge Tibetan plateau where it is grown, India too supply a significant portion to the global demand.

The fungus, also called Yartsa Gunbu in Tibetan language, is grown mostly in Uttarakhand besides pockets of Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. But worryingly, there is a production decline everywhere.

“Winter warming trends have been especially strong in the Himalayas, including all of India’s caterpillar fungus areas. Uttarakhand’s caterpillar fungus habitat has experienced among the largest reductions in summer rainfall compared to the other areas where caterpillar fungus grows,” Kelly A Hopping, a researcher at Stanford University and a member of the team that studied the species told DH.

“We suspect that the combined effects of over-exploitation and climate warming may be strongest in the southern Himalaya, including India,” said Hopping.

She and her colleagues from Stanford, Colorado State University and Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium spoke to more than 800 fungus collectors to understand the local knowledge on the production of the fungus and its decline.

“Harvesters increasingly attribute declining production to over-exploitation, while models indicate that climate warming is also contributing to this decline. Our results underscore the “double whammy” threatening highly valuable species,” they reported in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 2015, three researchers from Pithoragarh's LSM Govt Post-Graduate College reported a decrease in production from India, mainly due to habitat loss because of over-exploitation. Scientists from both sides of the Atlantic now demonstrate how climate change too contribute to the loss.

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