The worm that turned

Boom in natural remedy leads to holes across the Tibetan plateau

The worm that turned

So that's what they look like

For greed all nature is too little, warned the Roman philosopher Licius Seneca.

The saying seems an apt one today, when overexploitation is a common phenomenon. Objects of rarity and plants or animals with medicinal properties often suffer from over-harvesting.

China is one of the countries that has been singled out for its pursuit of medicines (or perceived culinary delicacies) sourced from endangered species, such as bear paw, rhinoceros horn, tiger bladder and shark fin, to name but a few.

And in the very near future, a highly-priced herbal remedy little known to the West could also become the source of further environmental concern.

Cordyceps, or ‘dong chong xia cao’ (which means winter worm summer grass), is formed after a type of parasitic fungus germinates in the larvae of ghost moths. It is found on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas at an altitude of 3000 to 5000 metres. This means it can be retrieved from parts of Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan, as as well as India, Bhutan and Nepal.

The cordyceps holds an esteemed position in traditional Chinese medicine. It was discovered about 1,500 years ago by herdsmen who observed that livestock became energetic after grazing on the plant.

Subsequently, an imperial physician in the Ming Dynasty used it to develop medicines and remedies. Today, it is believed to assist in the treatment of lung, heart and kidney diseases, as well as help in cases of fatigue, cancer and sexual dysfunction.

So the gathering of cordyceps has become an important secondary source of income for the nomads living on the Plateau. Each year, when spring arrives, many head to the highlands in search of the fungus. In Yushu in Qinghai province, a key centre for cordyceps trading, more than 200,000 people venture out into the grasslands.

The collectors are motivated by rising prices for their haul. A kilogram of cordyceps is sold (on average) for Rmb40,000 to 80,000, but a quality batch could fetch as much as Rmb200,000 ($29,200).

But the trade is destroying the grassland. Cordyceps collectors need to dig a square pit of 30 centimetre width and 10 centimetre depth for each specimen of plant that they gather. After digging, many don’t bother to refill the hole, leaving little chance for the meadow to restore itself naturally.

This is leading to soil erosion and grassland degradation. On top of that, the collecting season brings wider disruption in the trampling, tent-building, water collection, cooking and transportation of the digger population. Each collector can destroy up to a thousand square metres of grassland each year, according to People’s Daily Online.

While local governments have gradually introduced measures to control the collectors’ activities, there is no sign that the herbal ‘gold rush’ is on the wane.

Meanwhile, researchers have found the population of cordyceps has dropped significantly, even in what used to be fertile areas for the plant in Qinghai and Tibet.

Locals say that 10 times as much of the fungus could be found 25 years ago, a reflection of how over-pillaged and endangered it has become.

The implications go beyond the scarcity of a particular type of herbal medicine. With an area four times the size of France, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes on earth. Further deterioration of this vast land – due to the destruction of the grasslands – could have severe (and unpredictable) consequences.

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