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How the Surging Popularity of 'Himalayan Viagra' Is Causing Murder and Violence in Nepal

It has become the most expensive herbal remedy in Chinese medicine and it is prized for its reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac that boosts men's sexual prowess.

CHAME, Nepal – In a dim, dusty stockade in this small Himalayan town, Krishna Lama contemplated his ruined life – a dead father, a college career cut short and criminal charges, all because of a potent fungus that promises the vigor of youth and sexual prowess for men.  A devout Buddhist, Lama was a 20-year-old college student home on holiday in 2009, when he was compelled to join a posse protecting the lucrative fields near his home village of Nar, at altitude 13,450 feet and a steep two-day trek from the Annapurna trail in the Manang district. 

What ensued was one of Nepal’s most gruesome mass killings – over the fungus called yarsagumba. 

Fearing their fields had been poached by interloping yarsagumba pickers from Gorkha, a mob from Nar beat two men to death and threw their bodies into a deep crevasse. They rounded up the five other men and savagely beat them to death with sticks and stones. To conceal their crime, they cut the corpses into small pieces, wrapped them in plastic and threw them into a glacial torrent. The killers, 65 men and boys, swore an oath never to tell anyone what happened, not even their wives.

“Yarsagumba brings a curse,” Lama said. “Our entire village has had to suffer. Even my father had to face that fate.”

Two years before the massacre, Lama’s father had died. He, too, was beaten to death with sticks, though the exact circumstances of his murder remain unclear.

Lama’s story – that he was among the last to arrive on the scene and didn’t witness the killings – is corroborated by police, but as he awaited trial, he had no idea whether the court would accept his version of events or if it would be enough to get him acquitted.

The murders have torn the tiny village apart. Interviews with several of the accused in their stockade in Chame and their families in Nar reveal that they are more fearful of the punishment of their souls in the afterlife than of any judgment meted out by a court of law.

“I am cursed,” Lama said. “I have no hope.”

Lama’s story is just one from a gold rush in the Himalayas. Fortunes are being made – and lives are being ruined – not over gleaming metal nuggets, but in the reckless pursuit of yarsagumba. A rare hybrid of caterpillar and mushroom that grows only in the high alpine meadows of Tibet, Nepal and India. It has been prescribed by traditional healers in Asia for centuries to treat lung and kidney diseases, build up bone marrow and stop hemorrhaging, but it is prized above all for its reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac, earning it the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.”

Yarsagumba – also known by its scientific name, Cordyceps sinesis – was unknown in the Western world until 1994, when two female Chinese athletes at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, set new world records for mid- and long-distance running.

The astonishing times they posted gave rise to suspicions that they were using illegal performance enhancers such as anabolic steroids, but post-race drug tests revealed no trace of illegal substances. The runners’ controversial coach, Ma Junren, told foreign reporters that the women got their championship edge from daily doses of Cordyceps.

Thus began the yarsagumba boom. It is difficult to find an accurate estimate of the total production of yarsagumba, owing to the high degree of cross-border smuggling to avoid paying taxes and bribes. But according to Daniel Winkler, a botanist specializing in the fungus, it quickly has become the most expensive herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine.

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