Meet the fantastic fungus that fuels Tibet’s economy

Daniel Winkler in the field with some prize mushrooms. (Photo courtesy Daniel Winkler)

One of the world’s most valuable fungi is found in the soils of the Tibetan plateau.

Yartsa gunbu grows out of a mummified, fungus-infected caterpillar. It’s widely used in traditional Chinese medicine as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments, including pain, fatigue, impotence and cancer.

When China’s economy started booming in the 1990’s, the value of yartsa gunbu (aka Chinese caterpillar fungus) skyrocketed, transforming rural Tibet’s cash economy.

Daniel Winkler — mycologist, Grateful Dead fanatic, and Kirkland-based environmental consultant — has been working with the caterpillar fungus for over 20 years.

“Through the years the mushroom income in Tibet has developed into the absolute backbone of the rural cash economy,” he explained. “There is no other economic segment that generates near the mushroom money.”

Born in Munich, Germany, Winkler grew up scavenging for wild mushrooms with his family in the Alps. In 1991, he went to Tibet on a hunch that mushrooms might be able to improve economic conditions for rural Tibetans.

Working alongside the World Wide Fund for Nature in China, Winkler helped design a sustainable harvest project, hosting workshops and providing information on harvesting the fungi. 

His 2005 joint research project led to the first Tibetan yartsa gunbu conference in late 2005 in Lhasa, which resulted in the first Tibet-wide harvest regulations.

Cordyceps ophioglossoides also know as yartsa gunbu and Chinese caterpillar fungus grows out of the larvae of ghost moths buried in the soil. (Photo courtesy Daniel Winkler)
Cordyceps ophioglossoides also know as yartsa gunbu and Chinese caterpillar fungus grows out of the larvae of ghost moths buried in the soil. (Photo courtesy Daniel Winkler)

The fungus now provides, on average, 40 percent of rural cash income and 8.5 percent of the GDP in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). According to Winkler’s own study, published in the proceedings of the 7th International Medicinal Mushroom Conference in August 2013, the value of the fungus increased by 1,000% from 1997 to 2012.

But today the fungus is collected at unprecedented rates and is in danger of becoming over-picked. With the additional threat of climate change, Winkler says the increased dependence on yartsa gunbu by local economies calls for stronger sustainable resource management in the region.

With his beaming smile and inviting German accent, Winkler makes mushrooms instantly cooler than you ever thought possible. If you’re lucky, he might offer you a sip of his home-brewed mushroom vodka. Or he might offer to take you to Tibet with him to see the precious fungus for yourself.

Since 2006, Winkler has hosted “MushRoaming” tours, as he calls them, in the US, to Tibet, the Amazon, China and now Colombia.

“[The tours] became a way to combine my experience in the tourism industry and my environmental and Tibetan cultural knowledge,” he said.

The two week adventures are bonding experiences for participants as much as they are learning ones. Days are spent roaming the landscape, foraging through forest or rainforest, combing the grounds for fungi and flora and interacting with the locals.

Whether he is assisting communities in sustainable development or providing adventure and knowledge to curious souls, Daniel Winkler has made mushrooms accessible, practical and fun for others, all while feeding his own appetite for adventure.

“I’m extremely lucky to do what I love,” he says. “It’s one of the most precious things in life.”

Find out more about Daniel Winkler’s mushroom tours at Mushroaming.com.

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