Yarchagumba is a parasitic fungus that infects the larva of ghost moths. Nearly every piece of that sentence is upsetting. Similarly, the physical appearance of yarchagumba looks more like a discarded prop from a John Carpenter film than something you’d want to stick into your body:
Next to the fountain of youth, the search for sex-drive enhancements is one of history’s most coveted prizes. Yarchagumba is merely the most recent — joining the ranks of white rhino horns, bovine testicles, oysters, deer penis, tiger penis, goat penis, and fertilized duck embryos.
In the last couple years, the global demand for yarchagumba (particularly in the East) has exploded. It sells for more than the price of gold. It is given as gifts among China’s nouveau riche, as well as throughout Nepal, Japan, and Thailand. It is made into tea, soup, or sprinkled on various foodstuffs. A steady diet of yarchagumba, so adherents believe, results in a cumulative enhancement, a virile Nirvana if you will. It is nature’s new viagara.
Except that it isn’t. Scientific studies have found no conclusive link between certain foods and increased libedo, and yarchagumba is no different. It is believed to be an aphorodisiac, and at $50,000 a pound, it’s as much about status as it is superstition. If you’ve got money like that to splurge on fungas-ridden moth larva, then you probably won’t be single for long.
So what’s the big deal?
This belief has sparked what’s being called a “spore economy” in which impoverished villages in Nepal and Tibet are suddenly pitted in a deadly race to cultivate the stuff. It’s a veritable gold rush. Because of demand, entire villages are going to war with other villages; victims chopped up; skulls smashed in; and yarchagumba farmers hunted down and killed, their prized crop of insect larva plundered and sold off. All this, over the unsubstantiated belief that a moldy bug can give you an erection if you eat enough of them.
From the Himalayan Times, on just one such case:
The seven victims died in Manang in June 2009 after going to forage for Yarchagumba, a rare parasitic plant that is a major source of income for many Himalayan communities…. The defendants make up nearly all the male population of the village of Nar, near where the victims’ bodies were found.
All 36 accused deny murder and say the men died accidentally when a fight broke out over the right to harvest Yarchagumba, which grows on the larva of a species of moth.
Irrational beliefs have led to the hunting of certain animals to extinction, and AIDS denialism in Africa is directly linked to the deaths of tens of thousands because of the belief that ginger and lemon juice are effective treatments for HIV. It is merely the latest, underreported chapter of how a baseless belief really does have an effect, and not the one they were hoping for.
Cheaper than insect fungus! And with a smaller body count!