It is early July and the wind on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau still has a chilly bite to it. Just visible in the long grass that dances in the breeze is a man swaddled in clothes, only his ruddy cheeks and sharp eyes exposed to the elements.
Tibetan herder Nyimagya is stooped low, his eyes are trained on the ground and in his hand is a small axe-like tool, his pose says he is ready to pounce.
All of a sudden, he shouts out, bends even lower to the ground and gets to work with his axe. As he rights himself, he is shaking the soil off a tiny unassuming brownish plant -- a caterpillar fungus.
The fungus, which is also known as worm grass, is used in Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) as a "cure all" ingredient. It is extremely sought-after and fetches a similar price per gram to gold.
About 60 percent of the fungi comes from the northwestern province of Qinghai. In Zadoi County, Yushu Prefecture, over 20,000 people, about half of the county's population, earn their living by collecting it.
Unsurprisingly, this has led to severe over exploitation and the only way to keep up with market demand is artificial cultivation.
According to Qinghai Herding and Veterinarian Academy, between 1970 and 1979 one collector could harvest about 3,000 stalks daily, while between 2000 and 2009 yields had dropped significantly to 150.
Cao Hui, director of National Engineering Research Center for Modernization of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said in the last 20 years, fungi had retreated from an altitude of 3,500 to 4,500 meters. At the lower altitude, concentration of the fungi had depleted from 30 to 1.5 stalks per square meter.
Yao Yijian, from the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said something must be done to prevent the fungi from dying out.
The institute is planning to establish a preservation base, similar to an industrial farm, in Zadoi, which it says will create a favorable environment for the fungi to flourish.
"For example, we can irrigate the fungi in dry weather, and use plastic sheeting to protect it during inclement weather," he said.
Pharmaceutical companies have established similar industrial-scale protection bases in Qinghai.
Advances in artificial cultivation means that it is even possible to cultivate the fungi away from its natural habitat.
Wei Chunjiang, from the institute, said a farm that simulated the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau environment had opened in Hubei Province, central China. Fungi at the farm grow in half the time of the northern-grown natural variety.
While cheering these developments, Yao Yijian said that standards identifying the differences in quality and medicinal value between artificial and natural fungi should be discussed. (Xinhua)
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