By Bibbi Abruzzini
KATHMANDU, June 27 (Xinhua) -- A rare fungus, also known as " Himalayan Viagra," is both a source of income and violence across the Himalayas in Nepal.
Every year from May to June, entire villages are left deserted as locals rush to higher altitudes in search of the aphrodisiac Yarsagumba.
Yarsagumba is a rare hybrid of caterpillar and mushroom primarily found in the grasslands of Nepal, India, and the Tibetan plateau of China at an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 meters.
In the summer season, the underground caterpillar becomes infected by a parasitic fungus. The fungus mummifies the caterpillar and the precious remains emerge to the surface in winter.
Krishna Karki, 20 years old, said in a recent interview with Xinhua that six members of his family living in Dolpa, a district of Nepal bordering China, are engaged in the lucrative trade.
"Most people coming from my hometown are poor and uneducated, over the years our main source of income has been collecting Yarsagumba. My family owns some land but agriculture provides a living for only half the year," he said.
Yarsagumba pickers are usually young men who are ready to spend weeks in rugged terrains roaming in search of the "golden fungus" in the hope that it will bring fortune to their families.
As the value of Yarsagumba and its reputation reaches further and wider, the fungus continues to drive up both its price and appeal.
Yarsagumba is worth a minimum of 14,000 U.S dollars per kilogram at the source and prices increase consistently as it reaches the international market. The fungus is believed to have turned into the most expensive herbal remedy for impotency and erectile dysfunction in traditional Chinese medicine.
But all that glitters are not gold. Fortunes are being made and lives are being ruined in the pursuit of Yarsagumba.
Krishna Karki's cousin was recently stabbed in another violent clash related to the money-spinning fungus.
"A group of people told us to stop hunting Yarsagumba and as we refused, a fight broke out," Vishnu Karki said before he was discharged from the Grande International Hospital in Kathmandu.
According to doctors he was lucky to be alive. The victim was stabbed on the left side of his chest, close to the heart and the knife was pulled out leaving him little chance of survival.
Vishnu Karki was airlifted from the remote and inaccessible region of Dolpa to Kathmandu where he underwent an open-heart surgery which eventually saved his life.
"At the intensive care unit our team of doctors assessed that there was blood between the heart and the sac which surrounds the heart. This is a life-threatening situation, within 15 minutes one can die if not attended right away by a surgeon," said Dr. Raamesh Koirala from Grande International Hospital.
Vishnu Karki's story is just one from the"gold rush" in the Himalayas that has increasingly turned violent. As the number of people harvesting the fungus grew, tension among pickers or with government authorities rose, and in some cases even led to deaths.
"Every year I witness fights related to Yarsagumba, because of my heart condition I will never join the hunt for the rest of my life," Vishnu Karki said later.
In the second week of June this year, two people were killed and many injured after police intervened in a dispute over Yarsagumba harvesting in Dolpa.
In the deadliest accident in 2009, seven people from Manang were killed and six convicted.
The Yarsagumba business is a double-edged sword with perils extending beyond the picking fields. Gangs of bandits frequently steal seasonal takes from pickers and there is widespread corruption in different levels of the supply and demand chain.