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As Chinese mountains get hotter, hunt for 'cure-all' fungus gets harder

Updated : 2019-06-28 11:35:42

For Ma Junxiao, an ethnic Hui Muslim farmer from remote western China, the daily climb up sheer mountain slopes to look for a tiny fungus is vital to his family's subsistence. Each spring, Ma travels more than 600 kilometres (370 miles) by road from his impoverished village in Gansu to a jumbled knot of nameless peaks in neighbouring Qinghai province. There, he joins an army of about 80 people hired by a local company to find and pick Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers. In recent years, cordyceps companies in Qinghai have been paying locals millions of yuan for the right to cordon off an entire mountain each season. But the cordyceps harvest has waned in Qinghai, the biggest producing region in China. In the last two years, Ma's cordyceps income has more than halved to 7,000-8,000 yuan ($1,018-$1,164) per season as the fungus grew more scarce. One reason: higher temperatures, less seasonal snow, and receding glaciers have led to warmer mountains, making it less hospitable for the fungus, which thrives in soils that are cold but not frozen, about 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). Glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau have shrunk 15% in the past half a century as gains in local temperatures outstripped the global average by three-fold, Chinese state media reported last year. At the same time, demand for the highly prized cordyceps has increased sharply in the last decade as an emerging Chinese middle class seeks it to cure everything from kidney disorders to impotence, despite a lack of scientific evidence. A global fad for plant-based superfoods has also stoked interest.

Ma Junxiao, 49, an ethnic Hui Muslim farmer from remote western China, scans the ground to find cordyceps, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. Ma has been picking cordyceps in Qinghai for the past 14 years.
Ma Junxiao, 49, an ethnic Hui Muslim farmer from remote western China, scans the ground to find cordyceps, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. Ma has been picking cordyceps in Qinghai for the past 14 years. "The glaciers are gone, and so are the cordyceps," he said. REUTERS/Aly Song
Yaks walk on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. Found in the Himalayas, Tibet and Qinghai's high-altitude grasslands, the caterpillar fungus, as cordyceps is also known, has become the most important source of income for local communities, offering seasonal jobs for the poor and a path to riches for commercial harvesters. REUTERS/Aly Song
Yaks walk on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. Found in the Himalayas, Tibet and Qinghai's high-altitude grasslands, the caterpillar fungus, as cordyceps is also known, has become the most important source of income for local communities, offering seasonal jobs for the poor and a path to riches for commercial harvesters. REUTERS/Aly Song
A mountain, part of the Amne Machin range, in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A mountain, part of the Amne Machin range, in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A cordyceps picker digs out a cordycep, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A cordyceps picker digs out a cordycep, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers scan the ground on a mountain to find Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. Demand for the highly prized cordyceps has increased sharply in the last decade as an emerging Chinese middle class seeks it to cure everything from kidney disorders to impotence. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers scan the ground on a mountain to find Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. Demand for the highly prized cordyceps has increased sharply in the last decade as an emerging Chinese middle class seeks it to cure everything from kidney disorders to impotence. REUTERS/Aly Song
Tools belonging to cordyceps pickers are seen at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Tools belonging to cordyceps pickers are seen at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps picker Xing Hairen, 51, looks on as others scan the ground to find Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps picker Xing Hairen, 51, looks on as others scan the ground to find Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A cordyceps picker stands outside a tent at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A cordyceps picker stands outside a tent at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A base camp of cordyceps pickers is seen on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A base camp of cordyceps pickers is seen on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps are laid out on cloth for drying inside a cordyceps trader's house in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province, China June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps are laid out on cloth for drying inside a cordyceps trader's house in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province, China June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers smoke at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers smoke at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Ethnic Hui and Tibetan women wait to be hired by traders to clean up the freshly picked cordyceps at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Ethnic Hui and Tibetan women wait to be hired by traders to clean up the freshly picked cordyceps at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Ethnic Hui and Tibetan women remove soil from cordyceps at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Ethnic Hui and Tibetan women remove soil from cordyceps at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Buyers check the quality of cordyceps, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Buyers check the quality of cordyceps, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A skull of a yak lies in the valley in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A skull of a yak lies in the valley in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Tibetan woman Kangri Dolma, 65, waits to be hired by traders to clean up the freshly picked cordyceps at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Tibetan woman Kangri Dolma, 65, waits to be hired by traders to clean up the freshly picked cordyceps at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps are laid out on cloth for drying inside a cordyceps trader's house in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province, China June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps are laid out on cloth for drying inside a cordyceps trader's house in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province, China June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Buyers check the quality of cordyceps, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Buyers check the quality of cordyceps, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers, at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Buyers and sellers negotiate price by touching each other's fingers gesturing numbers under a cloth at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Buyers and sellers negotiate price by touching each other's fingers gesturing numbers under a cloth at a cordyceps trade market in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's western Qinghai province June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers search the ground on a frozen section of a river in a valley in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. Cordyceps harvest has waned in Qinghai, the biggest producing region in China. One reason: higher temperatures, less seasonal snow, and receding glaciers have led to warmer mountains, making it less hospitable for the fungus, which thrives in soils that are cold but not frozen, about 5 degrees Celsius. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers search the ground on a frozen section of a river in a valley in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 9, 2019. Cordyceps harvest has waned in Qinghai, the biggest producing region in China. One reason: higher temperatures, less seasonal snow, and receding glaciers have led to warmer mountains, making it less hospitable for the fungus, which thrives in soils that are cold but not frozen, about 5 degrees Celsius. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers rest in their tent at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers rest in their tent at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers cut up lamb carcasses at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. Cordyceps pickers are hired by a local company to find and pick the Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers. REUTERS/Aly Song
Cordyceps pickers cut up lamb carcasses at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. Cordyceps pickers are hired by a local company to find and pick the Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a fungus believed to possess aphrodisiac and medicinal powers. REUTERS/Aly Song
An ethnic Hui Muslim cordyceps picker cleans himself at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
An ethnic Hui Muslim cordyceps picker cleans himself at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
An ethnic Hui Muslim cooks steamed bread for cordyceps pickers at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
An ethnic Hui Muslim cooks steamed bread for cordyceps pickers at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A Tibetan cordyceps picker smokes a cigarette at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
A Tibetan cordyceps picker smokes a cigarette at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Shoes belonging to cordyceps pickers lie on the floor inside their tent at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Shoes belonging to cordyceps pickers lie on the floor inside their tent at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Ethnic Hui Muslim cordyceps pickers clean their bowls at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Ethnic Hui Muslim cordyceps pickers clean their bowls at a base camp on a mountain in the Amne Machin range in China's western Qinghai province, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
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