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'Himalayan Viagra' Earns Bhutan's Yak Herders a Fortune

Yak herders in Bhutan are growing rich from trading a rare aphrodisiacal mushroom found only in the high Himalayas.

The herders can earn more in a month from collecting the wild, parasitic Cordyceps sinensis fungus, dubbed "Himalayan Viagra" than they can in a year from yaks, thanks to recent tales of its aphrodisiacal and medical properties.

It sells for as much as $80,000 for 2.2 pounds in Hong Kong after a Chinese running coach credited it with the success of his record-breaking athletes.

With a licensed household collecting as much as 2.2 pounds of the fungus in a season, the archery-loving herders even started importing expensive bows from the U.S.

Dophu Dukpa, a Cordyceps auctioneer, said, "You can see the effects everywhere, in the new clothes and shoes. They are slaughtering far fewer yaks and spend a lot more time on their archery. But instead of the traditional bows, they are importing these fancy bows from the U.S."

Nigel Hywel-Jones, a British mycologist researching whether the trade is sustainable, said, "For one thing, it is very hard to find. It looks like a brown twig in a landscape of brown twigs.Secondly, an area that might be full of Cordyceps one year will have almost none the next. Those cycles, and the fact that pickers always miss a fair proportion, probably allow populations to recover."

The mushroom, which feeds on and then grows out of the body of the ghost moth caterpillar, is the subject of widespread pharmaceutical research.

One possible explanation for its effectiveness is that it contains an acid that closely mirrors one of the constituent elements of DNA.