Caterpillar fungus which is supposed to cure cancer is in great demand
In a dirty, dimly-lit room in a backstreet of one of China's poorest rural towns, a trader combs his fingers through a $17,000 bag of caterpillar fungus, lamenting the curse that its value has wrought.
The parasitic fungus, Cordyceps sinensis to science, only exists high on the Tibetan plateau, where it grows through the body of its host – the ghost moth caterpillar – killing it and bursting out of the top of its head.
What looks like a small brown twig on the end of a crinkled yellow worm is for its believers a lifesaver, a cure for cancer. For those who toil on hands and knees to collect it, it can mean death.
It has a potent status in traditional Chinese medicine – making it almost worth its weight in gold.
"It wasn't in demand before, but now we realise its value, we have lots of fights between neighbours," said Zande Gongba, as he sold half a kilogram of the fungus to a retailer.
Some of his suppliers were involved in clashes over the rights to collect the fungus that left two people dead in the green, rolling hills around Tongren, known to Tibetans as Rebkong.
Pictures posted online by overseas rights groups showed at least one villager armed with a machete and scores of riot police.
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama himself called for calm and reminded villagers that "violence is contrary to the beliefs and conduct of all who believe in karma and in Buddhism".
The fungus is known as dongchongxiacao in Chinese and yarchagumba in Nepali, both names meaning "winter worm, summer grass".
It is harvested mainly by poor farmers, who comb through the grasses of fields in one of world's most rugged and challenging landscapes on their elbows, at times in subzero temperatures.
The gruelling process – often carried out by young boys from poverty-stricken families – can earn around two to three dollars for each fungus, depending on the season.
By the time it reaches affluent end users among China's rich it can cost far more, an expensive designer ingredient for well-to-do dinner parties, offering both nutritional value and added social standing for the host.
Millions of other Chinese eat caterpillar fungus for supposed medicinal reasons.
"We have patients with stomach cancer and breast cancer, and they are basically cured after taking about half a kilogram of caterpillar fungus," said Yang Mengxian, manager at the Rebkong Culture store in Tongren, the town's biggest fungus dealer.
No scientific proof
There is no orthodox scientific proof of such claims, but that does not put off its adherents.
"Chinese people have a theory that caterpillar fungus is a traditional Chinese medicine that can benefit your kidneys," said Shen Tong, an entrepreneur.
"It tastes and smells kind of fishy," he adds.
"But you won't get the health benefits if you are only taking it in the short term. You have to take it on a regular basis for a long time, or at least three years, then it will help nurse your whole body."
China's booming traditional medicine industry produced goods worth 516 billion yuan ($84 billion) in 2012, more than 31 per cent of the country's total medicine output, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Yang makes her living from supplying the demand, but fears more violence.
"In the past many didn't realise how precious it is and how much it can sell for on the market."
But now, she said: "If they do not have fields producing it in their own village, they will go into their neighbours' villages."AFP