The mountains of northwest Yunnan, where Ophiocordyceps sinensis is collected. Photo: Caroline Weckerle


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Ophiocordyceps sinensis collection in Southwest China



Status: project finished.


The caterpillar mushroom Ophiocordyceps sinensis (syn. Cordyceps sinensis; Chinese: Chongcao; Tibetan: Yartsa gunbu), is among the most valuable mushrooms in the world, and plays a major role for cash income for local people in its distribution area on the Tibetan Plateau and adjacent regions. The fungus parasitizes the caterpillar of moth species belonging to the genus Thitarodes living in the soil of grass- and scrublands between an altitude of 3000 and 5000 m. The fungus grows in the body of the infected caterpillar, and before its death, the caterpillar moves close to the soil surface allowing the fruiting body of the fungus to develop above ground. Ophiocordyceps sinensis is used since centuries in Tibetan and Chinese medicine. Recently, however, its use as a tonic and medicinal food increased dramatically mainly in Hong Kong, the wealthy coastal cities of China, and among the overseas Chinese communities. While it is possible to cultivate the mycelium of the fungus on artificial substrate, attempts to cultivate the fungus on infected caterpillars, which are perceived as most valuable and effective, failed so far. Therefore, the increasing market demand has a direct impact on the wild harvest of the species on the Tibetan Plateau and adjacent regions. The enormous price increase in recent years turned this fungus into the most important source of cash income in contemporary rural Tibet. However, little is known about the long term impact of its harvest on species population level. So far, conservation initiatives concentrate with various successes on minimizing the side effects of its harvest on the surrounding fragile alpine environment (e.g. fuelwood collection, hunting, garbage production, etc). Factors influencing O. sinensis collection at both the household and community level of the local people are largely unknown, and the discussion on best practice of sustainable harvest considering both, O. sinensis as a valuable income source for rural poor and protection of its habitat, is ongoing. The present project aimed to contribute to this discussion with a detailed analysis of the collection of the fungus in a nature reserve in Southwest China. It focused on the household and community level and highlighted the factors which influence the engagement of the local people with O. sinensis collection. The management measures of the nature reserve were analyzed from a community perspective and conclusions for sustainable harvest of high value natural resources in protected areas were drawn and discussed in the context of the literature available from other O. sinensis collection areas such as the Tibetan Plateau, Bhutan and Nepal.




  • Weckerle, C.S., Yang, Y.P., Huber, F.K., Li, Q.H. (2010).
    People, money, and protected areas: the collection of the caterpillar mushroom Ophiocordyceps sinensis in the Baima Xueshan Nature Reserve, Southwest China.
    Biodiversity and Conservation 19: 2685-2698.

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