Zone of Peace
Tibetan Herders Join Rush For Prize Fungus
By Chris Buckley
YAJIANG, China Tue Jun 13, 2006 (Reuters) - Amid towering mountains stretching from western
China into Tibet, a tiny fungus is luring herders into a feverish treasure
hunt that promises wealth to people who have often been bystanders at
China's economic party.
At a mountain pass more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level
outside Yajiang County in Sichuan province, a herder, Tangba, and a dozen
other men have joined tens of thousands of Tibetans hunkered on treeless
slopes across the region, squinting for signs of what Chinese call "worm
grass" -- a prized medicine.
"You can become rich if you're lucky, make a bit of money if you're not, but
it's not easy," Tangba said, clutching a jar half-filled with shriveled,
yellowish stalks. "That why Tibetans are best at it. We know our home."
"Worm grass" is not really a plant. Known by Tibetans as "summer-grass
winter-worm", it forms when a parasitic fungus hijacks and devours the
bodies of ghost moth larvae that have burrowed into the alpine soil for up
to five years. It then steers their bodies to the surface so it can spread
The mummified moths, two inches or more long, are a traditional Tibetan
cure-all that promoters say helps fight AIDS, cancer and aging. As Tibetan
medical ingredients have won adherents in China and abroad, worm grass and
other alpine fungi and plants have become lucrative commodities, luring
almost entire villages on harvests from May to July.
"Now many families are going out to find it, just leaving the old people at
home. I thought it was a bit crazy too, but I also want to make money," said
Celang. He planned to quit his job in a Kangding town restaurant in western
Sichuan to hunt fungi.
With luck, Celang said, he could make 2,000 yuan ($250) in a month or two,
compared to 400 yuan a month in the restaurant.
At the mountain pass, Tangba and the other pickers set out every morning,
scanning tuft-covered ground for tell-tale fungi shoots and, with a trowel
or small hoe, cut carefully and deeply into the earth to avoid damaging the
Sometimes they return to camp with dozens of the dirt-covered caterpillar
fungi, at other times only a handful.
The hunt is enacted across large parts of Tibet itself, as well as
neighboring Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, providing a vital economic pump
in many areas, Daniel Winkler, an environmental consultant and expert on the
fungus based in Kirkland, Washington, told Reuters.
Children get special school holidays to go picking, officials go AWOL, and
in some areas influxes of thousands of temporary pickers take much of the
crop, sparking violence with locals and even killings, according to Chinese
Caterpillar fungus, which provides many Tibetan yak herders with about half
their annual income, is a case of bottom-up business in a region dominated
by grand development blueprints that have often failed to deliver at the
grass roots, Winkler said.
"Without the income from caterpillar fungus, the whole place would collapse
right now," he said of the local economy.
Pickers with larger hauls or higher hopes converge on markets like one in
Litang, a far-western Sichuan town that recalled a Gold Rush outpost overrun
by fungus hunters. On a recent Sunday, the main street was a crush of
pickers and traders, with onlookers following deals as intensely as Wall
Tibetan and some Hui Muslim buyers flashed wads of 100-yuan notes, gestured
bids, and peered at bags and baskets of fungi. Police had to break up a
brawl, apparently between quarrelling traders.
Nomadic Tibetans have traded caterpillar fungus with neighboring Chinese
regions for centuries. But locals said booming domestic and international
demand has made the annual hunt more intense, and enriched a class of
China's exports of worm grass leapt to 4,795 kg (10,570 lb) in 2004, up
1,422 percent on 2003, said China's pharmaceutical administration. China
produces about 20,000 tons of caterpillar fungus a year, according to one
official estimate. Litang traders said domestic demand is growing by 10
percent or more a year.
"You can make good money in Tibetan medical herbs, but you need to know the
market and the plants, and we're better at that than Han people," Tibetan
trader Dimtsenema said in a Kangding nightclub, where he was celebrating a
good week, dressed in a dark suit, red shirt and trimmed goatee.
But much of the annual crop eventually flows through mostly Han Chinese
wholesalers in regional hubs, such as the Hehuachi traditional medicine
market in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan.
A kilo today sells for 20,000 to 50,000 yuan, depending on quality and
origin; five years ago, it sold for about half that; a decade ago, for 3,000
yuan, said Hehuachi stall holder Deng Yazhi. "The whole world wants it, so
worm grass is like gold."
Commercial appetite for caterpillar fungus may, however, carry long-term
costs, some environmental activists have warned. Swathes of Tibetan highland
are being scoured of medical plants, leaving pock-marked mountain slopes
vulnerable to erosion and possibly disrupting complex ecological rhythms,
they have said.
Winkler, the environmental consultant, said the long-term consequences
remain little understood but production seems not to have suffered so far
and some warnings may be overblown.
Tibetan pickers said they worried most that growing numbers of people would
continue crowding the grass lands for fungus.
"It's getting harder and harder to find worm grass," said Tsangpa, a herder
who had traveled to Litang with a small bagful. "There's not so much to go
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