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Missing pieces in the story of a caterpillar fungus — Ophiocordyceps sinensis

Abstract

Ophiocordyceps sinensis (syn. Cordyceps sinensis) is a peculiar caterpillar fungus. It is not only known for its extraordinary medicinal values, which cover a wide spectrum of illnesses ranging from fatigue to cancer, but also for its fascinating life-story (Yeh & Lama 2013). Unlike many medicinal products, advertisements for “Cordyceps” do not solely promote its medicinal value, but also the origin of its production. Retailers often employ snowy mountains, Tibetan script, Tibetan people, blue sky and green meadows to advertise their products. Te imagined geography delivers a message to consumers that it is a natural wonder that comes from a Xanadu, a distant, exotic, untouched and unpolluted place. Te description of its production site is not meant to deceive the consumers, but it is only one piece of the story. Behind the veil of Ophiocordyceps commodification, we see missing pieces from a personal experience during a two-month-long field research in the eastern Tibetan region in summer 2018: Tibetan harvesters, a harsh climate, the declining Ophiocordyceps populations, plastic packaging and aluminum cans loitering the meadows. All these are also part of the production story.

Introduction

The skyrocketing demand for Ophiocordyceps sinensis from Chinese urban consumers in the last two decades has created a unique fungal economy in the Himalayas (Winkler 2009). In June 2018 Ophiocordyceps of average quality was sold for 50 000 US$/kg in Shanghai — at the same time the gold price was only 38 000 US$/kg. This ethnographic fieldwork among communities of Ophiocordyceps harvesters during the Ophiocordyceps harvesting season in an eastern Tibetan area, China, in 2018 reveals the impacts of the increasing demand of Ophiocordyceps on local people and local ecology.

Missing Pieces

The Ophiocordyceps only grows between 3000 m and 5200 m (Winkler 2010). Here, temperatures regularly drop below freezing on a summer night. Droma, the wife, starts the day at 06.30 h, waking up to make a fire for breakfast and warmth. Phuntsok and I got up when breakfast was ready. After some yak butter tea and Tsampa (roasted barley flour), Droma and Phuntsok carefully placed stones and prickly plants around their plastic tent before leaving to prevent pigs or yaks coming inside while we were away. Harvesters often bring livestock with them when they come to the mountains, which increases the grazing intensity. This has been suggested as one of the factors contributing to the decline of Ophiocordyceps populations (Shrestha & Babu 2013). Near to our tent, on the imagined “pristine” highland meadow, there were piles of waste and beer cans littered across the river banks.

After an hour of hiking, Droma and Phuntsok arrived at the foraging site around 08.30 h, and started their ‘hunting’ until 15.00–16.00 h, when they had to return before sunset. Walking at such a high altitude is not easy, even for some Tibetans who are used to the high-altitude environment. Searching for Ophiocordyceps requires patience and concentration. The stromata are usually project 2–3 cm above the soil, and are difficult to distinguish from the surrounding vegetation. Droma and Phuntsok searched on their own, but still within eyesight each other. Droma first walked for a while, then started to crawl on the ground at the places which she thought could be promising. The first three hours were disappointing, so they decided to have a break and eat some lunch. They brought Tsampa snacks, packaged biscuits, and cola. After lunch, the package of biscuits and the cola bottle were left out on the meadow — unfortunately not an uncommon sight in these areas.

Fig. 1
figure1

Advertisement. Translation from Chinese: “Meili Snow Mountain”, “Winter worm summer grass”

Fig. 2
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Advertisement. Translation from Tibetan (upper line): “The pilgrimage place Khawa Karpo”. Translation from Chinese (lower line): “Shangri-La”, “Meili Snow Mountain—Winter worm summer grass”.

Soon after lunch, Droma found the first piece of Ophiocordyceps. She used her fingers to remove the soil around the stroma, carefully pulling it entirely out and putting it into a little box. Phuntsok was suddenly motivated by Droma’s finding; he started to actively search at the area around Droma’s first Ophiocordyceps. They believe the Ophiocordyceps grow together — once you find one, there must be more around. At the end of the day, Droma had found two pieces and Phuntsok one. Three pieces in one day was worse than at the beginning of the harvesting season, and unfortunately it gets worse each year; but still, they were better off than the people who came back empty-handed.

Fig. 3
figure3

Camp ground: Villagers from neighboring areas are only allowed to set up tents, while the villagers who own these mountains can build houses. Photo: Siran Liang,

Fig. 4
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Foraging: Harvesters looking for stromata of Ophiocordyceps. Photo: Siran Liang.

After selling the day’s findings to middlemen, Droma went back to the tent to do housework, while Phuntsok headed to a poker room. At 4000 m, cash flows in great volumes for just two months through grocery shops, restaurants, pool tables, poker rooms, chess tables, a jewelry stand, and even a dancehall. That day Phuntsok did not come back for dinner. He spent his evening at the poker room until 02.00 h. The next day, he told us he had lost 60 ¥ (about 9 US$), equivalent to about two stromata of Ophiocordyceps. The same night, Droma went out to the dancehall with her friends. The dance hall was lively, with colorful dresses, laser beams, mainstream Tibetan music, alcohol, soft drinks, cigarettes, and other kinds of activities that blurred the harsh environment outside. It is probably one of the highest altitude dancehalls in the world.

Many Tibetan harvesters were complaining that it was getting harder and harder to find any Ophiocordyceps. I was informed by the elderly that decades ago each person could easily find hundreds of pieces a day, and that they used to eat a wok of the fungus for dinner when there was no other option of food. Some of the harvesters blamed the decreasing finds on increasing numbers of harvesters. Some, however, suggested it was because of climate change. Coincidently, a recent study underlines the influence of global warming on the decline in Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Hopping et al. 2018). The locals themselves observed first-hand the effects of climate change: “In the past, the snow could be so heavy that it would hinder us from coming to “Cordyceps” mountains, but in the last few years there was not much snow.” However, most of my informants attribute the reason of the decreasing production of Ophiocordyceps to the mountains’ “will” They believe that if the supernatural power wants to bless them, there will be more Ophiocordyceps.

I explained the life-cycle of Ophiocordyceps to Droma and Phuntsok together with a drawing, which they quickly understood. They started to explain it to their friends, many of whom were eager to learn. They asked me how to make it more sustainable. I told them they could start from not collecting “the ones wearing a hat”. Locals call the over-mature stromata with evident sporulation “the ones wearing a hat”. I suggested this because these “overmature” stromata are the main source of the ascospores, and as they usually have much less economic value due to the softness of the larvae (Winkler 2010); middlemen call these “dead Cordyceps” or “rubbish Cordyceps” and they would pay at most 5 ¥ (0.80 US$). After listening to my suggestions, one girl responded: “Even if I don’t pick it, other people will pick it.”

Nyima, a 60 year old shepherd, told me that his daughter-in-law often comes back home empty-handed. “She can’t find even one piece. But she doesn’t want to look for other jobs, she also can’t do other jobs. As if the money derived from “Cordyceps” would be more valuable than the one from other means. She tasted the sweetness of plucking Cordyceps. People cannot let go the fact that there is no more “Cordyceps”!” His statement implies that although there is a sharp decline of Cordyceps, people still have the imagined gold in their minds. The Ophiocordyceps has empowered the lives of these people, but it has also restricted their livelihood options.

Conclusions

The medicinal attributes of Ophiocordyceps sinensis are often promoted together with the exotic origin of production — the mysterious, pure, untouched Tibetan plateau. However, this is not the complete story. This ethnographic investigation reveals first-hand the daily struggle of the Tibetan Ophiocordyceps harvesters and the challenges that they face. Overexploitation of Ophiocordyceps has not only led to a sharp decline of its population but has also resulted in negative environmental impacts on the remote sites from which it is harvested. Furthermore, although this fungus has empowered the otherwise marginalized Tibetan harvesters in the last few decades and has come to play an indispensable role in their lives, the prospect is that the current unsustainable practice may lead to a devastating impact on local livelihoods, habitat degradation, and a loss of biodiversity.

Concern over the over-harvesting of this fungus has been expressed in adjacent areas of the Himalayas, and in the case of Bhutan the government was putting in place measures to promote the wise management of this resource (Cannon et al. 2009). In view of my findings, it is evident that this matter requires urgent attention throughout the areas in which Ophiocordyceps sinensis occurs.

References

  1. Cannon PF, Hywel-Jones NL, Maczey N, Norbu L, Tshitilia, et al. (2009) Steps towards sustainable harvest of Ophiocordyceps sinensis in Bhutan. Biodiversity and Conservation 18: 2263–2281.

  2. Hopping KA, Chignell SM, Lambin EF (2018) Te demise of caterpillar fungus in the Himalayan region due to climate change and overharvesting. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 115: 11489–11494.

  3. Shrestha UB, Bawa KS (2013) Trade, harvest, and conservation of caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) in the Himalayas. Biological Conservation 159: 514–520.

  4. Winkler D (2009) Caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) production and sustainability on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas. Asian Medicine 5: 291–316.

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  6. Yeh ET, Lama KT (2013) Following the caterpillar fungus: nature, commodity chains, and the place of Tibet in China’s uneven geographies. Social & Cultural Geography 14: 318–340.

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Acknowledgements

I thank Daniel Münster for his constant guidance. I am also grateful to the scholarship provided by PROMOS DAAD which made my fieldwork possible, and most importantly thank my Tibetan friends who welcomed me into their lives and with great hospitality.

Author information

Correspondence to Siran Liang.

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Key words

  • conservation
  • Cordyceps
  • entomopathogenic fungi
  • ethnomycology
  • medicinal fungi
  • Tibet