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Caterpillar Fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) Production and Sustainability on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas

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Caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps = Cordyceps sinensis) is an entomophagous fungus endemic to the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas. It has become the most important source of cash income in wide areas of the Tibetan Plateau, where it is known as yartsa gunbu, ‘summer grass winter worm’. The market is driven by Chinese consumers, who refer to it as dongchong xiacao. The value of this myco-medicinal has increased by 900% between 1997 and 2008, creating a globally-unique rural fungal economy. However, actual annual production data is still not available for many areas of the Tibetan Plateau in China as well as the Himalayan production areas of India, Nepal and Bhutan. This paper analyses available production data and estimates the total annual production in the range of 85 to 185 tons for all production areas. Current availability of multi-annual production figures is limited and allows only for provisional estimates regarding the sustainability of current harvesting quantities. Centuries of collection indicate that caterpillar fungus is a resilient resource. Still, unprecedented collection intensity, climate change and the recent economic dependence of local economies on caterpillar fungus calls for sustainable resource management. Absence of long-term field studies indicating best management practices—at best in their infancy in some production areas—necessitate a degree of improvisation in designing resource management strategies. The development of easily implementable approaches that can rely on community support will be crucial for successful management. Most promising from a socio-economic, administrative and also mycological perspective is the establishment of an end date of the collection season, which might allow for sufficient spore dispersal to guarantee sustainability.


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