Global Politics

Himalayan Viagra

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Weighing caterpillar fungus (Photo: Magnus Manske)

By Mary Kay Magistad

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High in the Himalayas, a parasitic fungus that's just eaten a caterpillar is thought to boost energy, clear phlegm and help sexual dysfunction. The fungus has also been known to sell for $5,000 lb. In Tibet, hunting this fungus is a free-for-all that's helped some nomadic families break out of poverty. In neighboring Bhutan, though, where the government tries to limit environmental damage, a different system is in place.

Still, the hunt for Himalayan Viagra is still getting harder by the year.

At a traditional medicine hospital in the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, Tshering Wangdi sits waiting. He's got a bad leg. He said he used to boost his energy with a swig of the fungus, known as cordyceps, steeped in local wine.

"I used to drink it every evening with my dinner," Wangdi said. "My friends would find it in the hills, and keep whatever wasn't good enough to sell. But now, it's really hard to get."

And it's getting harder to buy, unless you've got deep pockets. Bhutan's government allows just one person per household in certain poor mountain villages to go collect the fungus. The season runs for six weeks or so in the early spring, just after the parasitic fungus has killed and partially eaten its caterpillar prey.

"It looks like a mushroom, except it has eyes. And it's really hard to find. It's pretty much a matter of luck," said Tshering Wangdi.
Athletic achievements

It didn't used to be quite so hard to find the fungus. That all changed when in 1993, Chinese female athletes broke records in nine track-and-field events, and credited a tonic made with the fungus. Global demand took off, and the price shot up.

It's worth the price, according to a Tibetan named Li Wei at a traditional medicine fair in the Chinese province of Yunnan.

"It helps your kidneys," he told potential customers. "It cures your backache, it gives you energy — especially for men, and there are no side effects!"

Cordyceps are only found in the Himalayas, mostly in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, usually above 11,000 ft. An estimated 40 to 50 tons of the stuff is sold each year. Bhutan, with its annual auction, gets just a fraction of that action, but it's experimenting with packing this Himalayan Viagra in a pill.

Samten, a researcher at Menjong Sorig Pharmaceuticals, which is connected to the Institute of Traditional Medicine, said it has powerful properties.
Aphrodisiac

"It is not exactly Viagra, but it is used like Viagra, as an aphrodisiac," Samten said. "It's a tonic for anyone — if you're feeling weak, you can eat it. It also promotes long life."

The pill his company makes looks like a cold capsule. He said sales of this over-the-counter supplement, Cordyplus, haven't been quite what the company had hoped for. They've sold about 5,000 boxes in three years. Then again, he admitted, they haven't advertised much and they haven't marketed Cordyplus outside of Bhutan.

"When we do marketing abroad, there are a lot of rules and regulations," Samten said. "So if our product is sold in USA and it has some side-effects, it will have a lot of implications."

He added that the company didn't actually test the supplement before putting it on the market. It just followed ancient traditional medicine texts, and asked for feedback from those who bought the first batch. So far, he said, it's all been good.

Still, the company hesitates to venture into the eager market in China. Samten said Chinese companies are already all over that. While Bhutan seeks a balance between protecting its environment and fully exploiting its fungal gold, others in the region, and especially in China, power ahead, energized by the promise of a high-altitude worm.

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