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Slowing Down the Himalayan Viagra Gold Rush

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 30, 2014

The magic stuff.  (Photo: Michael S. Yamashita / National Geographic Society / Corbis)

The magic stuff. (Photo: Michael S. Yamashita / National Geographic Society / Corbis)

My deep suspicion is that the rush for this “Himalayan Viagra” in Tibet is a rush for fool’s gold. But this is serious business.  The study notes that, “In recent incidents, in June 2014 a clash with police in Dolpo left two dead in a dispute between members of the local community and a National Park Buffer Zone Management Committee over who has the right to collect and keep fees paid by outsiders for access to yartsa gunbu grounds.”

Come on, people, it’s a fungus, and the name yartsa gunbu translates as “summer grass, winter worm.” Does that really make you imagine the peril of the infamous four-hour erection?

But I am so glad the Tibetans have figured out a way to protect the resource in the middle of this madness, and maybe there’s something here to learn for other managers of imperiled resources.

Here’s the press release:

Overwhelmed by speculators trying to cash-in on a prized medicinal fungus known as Himalayan Viagra, two isolated Tibetan communities have managed to do at the local level what world leaders often fail to do on a global scale — implement a successful system for the sustainable harvest of a precious natural resource, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

“There’s this mistaken notion that indigenous people are incapable of solving complicated problems on their own, but

these communities show that people can be incredibly resourceful when it’s necessary to preserve their livelihoods,” said study co-author Geoff Childs, PhD, associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

Writing in the current issue​ of the journal Himalaya, Childs and Washington University anthropology graduate student Namgyal Choedup describe an innovative community resource management plan that some conservative capitalists might view as their worst regulatory nightmare.

In one remote village, for weeks in advance of the community-regulated harvest season, all able-bodied residents are required to show their faces at a mandatory roll call held four-times daily to ensure that no one is sneaking off into the nearby pastures to illegally harvest the precious fungus.

While regulations such as these might seem overly authoritarian, they’ve been welcomed by community residents desperate to get a grip on chaos associated with feverish demand for yartsa gunbu, a naturally-occurring “caterpillar fungus” prized in China for reported medical benefits. Use of the fungus as an aphrodisiac has earned it the nickname Himalayan Viagra.

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