Caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is in high demand because of its purported medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Marketing geniuses are selling it to a world audience as, ‘Himalayan Viagra’. Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is found in the Himalayan mountains in association with Ghost Moth caterpillars of the genus Thitarodes. The caterpillars live underground feeding on roots. The fungus infects the caterpillars and sends a fruiting body out of the head of the deceased caterpillar. The fruiting body is harvested and marketed.Uttam Babu Shresthaa and Kamaljit S. Bawaa discuss the issues of sustainability surrounding the caterpillar fungus harvest in the journal, Biological Conservation*. Interviews with fungus harvesters suggest that the fungus is declining in availability. Its level of harvest may not be sustainable. The authors identify several factors that impact the sustainability of the harvest including decrease in moth and larval populations and change in the soil habitat in ways less favorable to the fungus. Habitat degradation or loss (including decline or loss of host plant) could directly affect caterpillar populations. Potential reasons for habitat degradation include climate change and alteration due to grazing animals. Increased grazing is in part due to fungus harvesters taking their grazing livestock with them into the fungus and caterpillar habitat as they collect the fungus. In many instances, over harvesting is addressed by developing cultivation methods. In the case of Caterpillar Fungus and Ghost Moths, the complex life cycles of the caterpillar and fungus makes commercialization challenging.
*Uttam Babu Shresthaa and Kamaljit S. Bawaa. (2013) Trade, harvest, and conservation of caterpillar fungus in the Himalayas. Biological Conservation 159:514–520.