National Geographic : 2012 Aug
it was still less than a hundred dollars. Now a pound of top-quality yartsa can retail for $50,000. Such outsize demand sparks concern that the total annual harvest, now roughly 400 million specimens, may diminish as yartsa elds become overpicked. To harvest the worms sustainably, pickers would need to leave some stalks in the soil to mature and infect the next season's lar- vae, says ecologist Daniel Winkler. Instead, most villagers harvest every stalk they nd and then move on to higher hunting grounds. Due to the annual yartsa windfall, thousands of formerly impoverished Tibetan yak herders own motorcycles and iPhones and at-screen TVs. Battles over worm-picking turf---most areas allow only licensed residents to pick---have resulted in violent encounters, including seven murders in northern Nepal, where a small per- centage of the world's yartsa is picked. In the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, burglars once tunneled, prison-break style, into a shop selling yartsa, making o with more than $1.5 million worth of product. e Chinese police have es- tablished numerous roadside checkpoints to prevent poachers from sneaking on to hillsides reserved for local villages. ere are now places, like the town of Serxu--- home to Silang and his wife---where, when the ground warms and the grass sprouts, all else in life is abandoned to the pursuit of yartsa. Chil- dren, with keen eyes and low-to-the-ground statures, are o en the best pickers. Some school systems, helpless against the lure of the worms, close for a one-month yartsa holiday. At the end of the long picking day, Silang and Yangjin bring their worms to the lo- cal market. Serxu's market, during the height of the season, sprawls along the puddled sidewalks on both sides of the town's main street. It is customary, in this frontier-feeling place, amid treeless hills speckled with herdsmen's tents and strung with prayer ags, to dress up for market. Many wear traditional Tibetan coats, the sleeves so long there's no need for gloves. Men A ten-year-old girl's gloved hand holds the tiny, dirt-covered biological curiosity: Yartsa gunbu is a combination of moth larva (caterpillar) and parasitic fungus. The high-priced "worms," as the infected larvae are called, are believed to cure everything from hair loss to hepatitis.