As Chinese mountains get hotter, hunt for ‘cure-all’ fungus gets harder


This content was published on June 28, 2019

Cordyceps picker Xing Hairen, 51, looks on as others scan the ground to find Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China’s western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song

By Ryan Woo

AMNE MACHIN RANGE, China (Reuters) – For Ma Junxiao, an ethnic Hui Muslim farmer from remote western China, the daily climb up sheer mountain slopes to look for a tiny fungus is vital to his family’s subsistence.

Each spring, Ma travels more than 600 kilometres (370 miles) by road from his impoverished village in Gansu to a jumbled knot of nameless peaks in neighbouring Qinghai province.

There, he joins an army of about 80 people hired by a local company to find and pick Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers.

In recent years, cordyceps companies in Qinghai have been paying locals millions of yuan for the right to cordon off an entire mountain each season. (Click to see a picture package about harvesting cordyceps.)

But the cordyceps harvest has waned in Qinghai, the biggest producing region in China. In the last two years, Ma’s cordyceps income has more than halved to 7,000-8,000 yuan ($1,018-$1,164) per season as the fungus grew more scarce.

One reason: higher temperatures, less seasonal snow, and receding glaciers have led to warmer mountains, making it less hospitable for the fungus, which thrives in soils that are cold but not frozen, about 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit).

“The glaciers are gone, and so are the cordyceps,” said Ma, 49, who has been picking cordyceps in Qinghai for the past 14 years.
Glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau have shrunk 15% in the past half a century as gains in local temperatures outstripped the global average by three-fold, Chinese state media reported last year.

Some climate researchers attribute that to the loss of high-elevation snow needed to deflect the sun’s heat back into space. The dark rock beneath the snow, now exposed, absorbs the heat.

At the same time, demand for the highly prized cordyceps has increased sharply in the last decade as an emerging Chinese middle class seeks it to cure everything from kidney disorders to impotence, despite a lack of scientific evidence. A global fad for plant-based superfoods has also stoked interest.

Found in the Himalayas, Tibet and Qinghai’s high-altitude grasslands, the caterpillar fungus, as cordyceps is also known, has become the most important source of income for local communities, offering hundreds of seasonal jobs for the poor and a path to riches for commercial harvesters.

At the market peak in 2010, the street price of cordyceps was more than $100,000 per kilogram, launching a craze and enticing herders and farmers like Ma to flock to the mountains.

Some experts say the enthusiasm has led to overharvesting on top of a less-hospitable climate, despite official insistence on sustainable production.

This year, with cordyceps harder to find, Ma has had to climb as high as 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) to find fungus for which he is paid 6 yuan per piece.

“I have two sons, and they run a noodle shop in Jiangsu province on the coast. Almost all of my cordyceps income goes towards sustaining that shop,” Ma told Reuters.

Grass-dwelling caterpillars deliver the fungus when they migrate, arriving as early as summer, after which the fungus lays dormant in its host through the frigid winter months.


Categories: Asia, China

Tagged as: , ,

Leave a Reply