Caterpillar fungus is the most prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Worth three times its weight in gold, the fungus appears every summer on the Tibetan Plateau, where families pack their bags and head to the mountains to harvest this valuable remedy.
In April, I wanted to do a story about a Tibetan soap factory in southwestern China. It was in Sichuan Province, in a region with Tibetan cultural influences.
But when I tried arranging a shoot, the factory’s manager told me none of the workers would be around. “They’ll be up in the mountains,” he said.
Why? Because summertime on the Tibetan Plateau is caterpillar fungus season.
Every year between April and June, families here drop what they’re doing and head to the mountains in search of the elusive fungus.
Caterpillar fungus, also known as cordyceps, is one of the most prized ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine.
Its purported health benefits include boosting energy, improving immunity, and treating lung inflammation.
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The herbal remedy first gained worldwide attention in 1993 when Chinese runners attributed their record-breaking performance to a diet of caterpillar fungus.
Since then, caterpillar fungus prices have soared. In 2017, one pound sold for $63,000 at a pharmacy in Beijing.
Between 2012 and 2017, caterpillar fungus prices rose an average 20% every year, on the back of increased U.S. demand.
American health brands such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop have touted it as an immunity-boosting supplement.
The caterpillar fungus trade has become so profitable that thousands of people living on the Tibetan Plateau take months out of their summer to harvest them.
They are mostly found in the Himalayan region, at altitudes above 11,000 feet.
“In one season, you can earn more than $1,400.”
“In one season, you can earn more than $1,400,” says 20-year-old Ni Ma, who’s come to search for caterpillar fungus. “If the harvest is good, you can earn around $4,000 to $7,000.”
The fungus is the result of a parasitic growth. During the winter, it infects ghost moth caterpillars that live deep in the soil.
Known scientifically as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, the fungus takes control of the caterpillar’s brain and forces it to crawl up toward the surface of the soil.
By summertime, the caterpillar dies, while the fungus continues to grow until it pops out of the caterpillar’s head and appears on the surface of the soil.
That’s when harvesters like Ni pick them.
“If the caterpillar fungus is pretty long, it’s easy to see the head,” he says. “If it’s small, it’s not so easy, so I just lie there for a minute or two and look very carefully.”
Ni’s day typically starts at 7 am. After a hearty breakfast of tsampa, a Tibetan staple made with roasted barley flour, yak butter, and tea, he heads out to the fields to start looking for caterpillar fungus.
He spends over eight hours a day crawling on all fours. It might seem like searching for a needle in a haystack, but he has a few tricks.
“Usually, we search in places that have been previously dug up,” he says. “There will be fungus there, for sure.”
When he spots one, he carefully digs the soil around it, making sure not to break the fungus. Broken pieces fetch a lot less than whole ones.
Today, he’s only found four fungi, a small number for a whole day’s work.
Over the years, a micro-economy has sprung up around the caterpillar fungus harvest. Harvesters set up tents for two months in areas with caterpillar fungus populations. Vendors follow with food and supplies.
Ni’s parents run a stall selling daily provisions to other harvesters. When he’s not searching for caterpillar fungus, he’s helping his parents at their stall.
Caterpillar fungus numbers, though, have been on a steady decline in the past decade. Studies have cited climate change and warmer winters as reasons, since caterpillar fungi thrive in the cold.
Another huge factor is overharvesting. Since caterpillar fungi reproduce by sending out spores, extracting them before their spores can proliferate reduces next year’s numbers.
But it’s unlikely that harvesters like Ni will slow down any time soon. The demand is too high, and the money they can make from collecting caterpillar fungus is too hard to turn down.