YARTSA GUNBU དབྱར་རྩྭ་དགུན་འབུ་
The literal translation is, ‘winter worm, summer grass’ yet it is technically neither a grass or a worm. Ophiocordyceps sinensis, found in the high-altitude pastures of the Tibetan Plateau, is a fungus that germinates in the living larvae of the ghost moth, devouring and mummifying it leaving only the exoskeleton in tact while an unimpressive stalk-like fruiting body erupts from the corpse.
‘Bu’ (insect), as it is known colloquially, is highly valued as a herbal remedy and aphrodisiac and is thought to possess miraculous medicinal powers. It has been used for centuries in Chinese and Tibetan medicine. A 15th-century Tibetan text, titled An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities, states that ‘bu’ is a “faultless treasure” that “bestows inconceivable advantages” on those who ingest it. Boil a few in a cup of tea and all that ails you will be healed and the Yaks that graze on it will grow in strength tenfold – Or so it is said.
As the Chinese economy booms as does the demand for ‘bu’. They have become a status symbol among China’s rich and, depending on their size, colour and firmness, can easily be priced at more than double their weight in gold.
In Yushu ‘bu’ represents a substantial proportion of the annual income for most households, transforming the rural economy. The whole family harvest it, children, with their sharp eyes and short statures, are often the best pickers. Local schools, helpless against the lure of ‘bu’, close for a one-month harvesting holiday. Monks are forbidden by their religious vows from picking or eating them, but it’s fine to buy and sell and they do so with vigour.
Over-harvesting and overexploitation has led to the classification of Ophiocordyceps sinensis as an endangered species in China. Ecologist Daniel Winkler says to harvest ‘bu’ sustainably, pickers would need to leave some stalks in the soil to mature and infect the next season’s larvae. Locals believe that the mass migration to the city and the reduced number of nomads and therefore Yaks at pasture has added to the depletion. The soil is no longer as rich and the ‘bu’ is not spread as far by the foraging Yak. The 'bu' that once was so plentiful that, when my father was young, he would feed them to his horses are now in danger of disappearing. If harvests continue to dwindle locals will need to rethink how they make their living as so many have sold their animals and no longer live the traditional nomadic life.
This is a work in progress
All Images © Rinchen Lucy 2016