June 13, 2006

Tibetan herders join rush for prize fungus

By Chris Buckley

YAJIANG, China (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 its spores.

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

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 larvae corpse.

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 news reports.

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

"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
Street brokers.

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


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 Tibetan brokers.

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

"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

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 around."