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Rush for cure-all fungus puts plateau ecology at risk

04-29-2011 17:31 BJT

YUSHU, Qinghai, April 29 (Xinhua) -- The yellowish caterpillar fungus is about two inches long and weighs less than 1 gram, but a tiny stalk sells for about the same price as half a gram of gold even in the nearest town from the plateau where it grows.

The worm grass, known in China as "winter-worm summer-grass," is not really a plant. It forms when a parasitic fungus hijacks and then feeds off the bodies of ghost moth larvae that have burrowed into the alpine soil 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level. It then pushes the remains of their bodies to the surface so the fungus can spread its spores.

The mummified moths are a traditional Tibetan cure-all that is believed to help fight cancer and the ageing process and boost the immune system.

As Tibetan medical ingredients are much coveted in China and abroad, worm grass has become a lucrative commodity, luring entire villages to harvest it from May to July.

Zadoi County, seated at an average altitude of 4,300 meters in Yushu Prefecture of northwest China's Qinghai Province, is known for its quality caterpillar fungus, nurtured by the ample sunshine and mild climate at the source of China's three major rivers, including the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.

Last year, Yushu's caterpillar fungi output totaled 18 tonnes, more than half of which was harvested in Zadoi. The county with 50,000 people has a per capita income of 4,000 yuan (616 U.S. dollars), at least twice the average income gained from farming and herding.

OVERNIGHT WEALTH

Shecha, 74, found it hard to imagine the wild grass she saw in mountains everywhere and "chewed for fun" when a child suddenly had become so valuable.

"Tibetan doctors never used worm grass and we knew nothing of its magic effects," said Shecha. "It tasted good, though."

Until the 1980s, the fungus sold for about 20 yuan per kilogram, said Changsur, a village official in Zadoi. "In the 1990s, however, the prices soared to 6,000 yuan per kilo."

The locals thought it was a joke until fungus dealers flooded into every obscure plateau village offering "sky-high prices," said Changsur.

Today, the fungus sells for 60,000 to 230,000 yuan per kilogram, according to the Qinghai provincial association of the worm grass industry.

Driven by the high profits, all residents in Zadoi, including children and elderly, join the rush for worm grass every year. Even schools are closed from May 20 to June 30, so that students and teachers can join in the harvesting.

EXHAUSTIBLE RESOURCES

Not so long ago outsiders were allowed to harvest Zadoi's fungus, said county official Tsetopgye. "From 10,000 to 20,000 outsiders poured in every year trying to get a share of the lucrative business. Many of them did not shovel the loose earth back in place after harvesting, badly damaging the vegetation."

Clashes sometimes erupted between locals and outsiders over the limited fungus resources, said Tsetopgye. "In the worst clash, which happened in 2005, deaths and injuries were reported."

In the same year, the governments of Qinghai Province and Yushu Prefecture began restricting caterpillar fungus harvests.

Today, Zadoi's fungus is off-limits to non-locals. Within the county, villagers have to pay 300 to 600 yuan per person to get approval from the government for harvesting fungus beyond their own village.

As the harvest season approaches, three checkpoints have been erected on the road linking Zadoi County with the neighboring Yushu County, guarded by Zadoi villagers.

Wang Peijun, a deputy official in Zadoi County, said the move was aimed at protecting the locals' interests as well as the ecology.

Village official Changsur said more than 2,000 villagers were mobilized every year to stand watch in the mountains ahead of the harvest season. "When farmers from other counties creep in, we tell them to leave. If they refuse to go, we report them to the county police bureau."

Tenzin and her husband Karma Gyaltsen last year drove the family's 40 yaks to her parents' home 50 km from Zadoi County before they went camping with 20 other families in a fungus harvesting trip in the mountains.

Each day they left early in the morning with a day's food, tsamba and air-dried beef, and returned to their camp late at night.

Harvesting fungus is a hard chore, as one has to bend down and search every inch of land for the tiny stalks that often lie hidden in the bushy wild grass.

When they dig out a stalk, they always put the loose earth back hoping to minimize damage to the vegetation.

"The worm grass is a gift from mother nature," said Tenzin. "We must care for nature while we enjoy the fortune it brings us."

When the weather is good, Tenzin and her husband can harvest 40 stalks. But on snowy days they get nothing as it is hard to move along in the mountains.

FRAGILE ECOLOGY

At the end of the harvest, many people move back to their cozy homes in the county seat and enjoy a carefree life for the rest of the year.

"Last year, we made more than 20,000 yuan in 40 days," said Sichung, a Tibetan housewife in her newly built house in the heart of Zadoi. "That's enough to support our whole family of eight."

Despite the fungus fortune, local officials are concerned about the future. "What if we run out of the fungus some day? What if the fungus is not popular anymore and its price slumps?" said Dawa Tsering, an official in Namse Village.

Zadoi used to produce 30 tonnes of caterpillar fungus in the 1990s, he said. "Today, the annual output is about one third of that amount."

A researcher with Qinghai Academy of Social Sciences also blames fungus harvesters for ecological degradation that could one day lead to the Yellow River, China's second longest waterway, to run dry at its source.

"Traditionally, we Tibetans never took excessively from nature. But due to the booming economy, some of us are blindly seeking profits," said Dawa Tsering.

In the impoverished county of Zadoi, he said many villagers were still intoxicated by the sudden fortune. "But will it be too late to restore the environment when they wake up from the ecstasy?"

Editor:Yang Jie |Source: Xinhua

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