Nepalese villagers endure harsh temperatures and steep hikes to harvest yarsagumba, the rare fungus known as “Himalayan Viagra,” which sells for about $9,400 a pound.

To see more photography by Thomas L. Kelly, visit


Arms race on America’s streets

Arms race on America’s streets
  1. Thomas L. Kelly

    Fortunes are being made in the pursuit of the medicinal fungus yarsagumba, a rare hybrid of caterpillar and mushroom that grows only in the high alpine meadows of Tibet, Nepal and India. Nicknamed “Himalayan Viagra,” it is said to prolong the vigor of youth into advanced age.

  2. Thomas L. Kelly

    Humde Airport, at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet, has a view of the Annapurna trail in the background. An airplane is the only means in and out of Nepal’s Manang district, other than a days-long trek.

  3. Thomas L. Kelly

    Laka Tshering and his family collect yarsagumba during the harvest season. A hard-working picker can earn as much 200,000 rupees, about $2,500, or more in a season – this in a country where the average annual income by some measures is just $500.

  4. Thomas L. Kelly

    During the six to eight midsummer weeks of the prime harvest season, most of the able-bodied population of the nearby villages head into the yarsagumba picking fields. A temporary tent town serves as the base for their fungal prospecting.

  5. Thomas L. Kelly

    Four to six people might cram inside a small tent to fight the harsh cold. Yarsagumba harvesting is dangerous work, with pickers dying in snowstorms and avalanches. Yet the most notorious fatalities in the trade are the result of greed, at the hands of other collectors.

  6. Thomas L. Kelly

    Yarsagumba pickers head out to harvest at Ice Lake, more than 13,000 feet above the Annapurna trekking trail. The best collectors at Ice Lake might get a dozen to 15 pieces in a day.

  7. Thomas L. Kelly

    Manang village woman walk along steep trails, carrying wood for cooking fires.

  8. Thomas L. Kelly

    A picker uses a hoe to carefully dig out the soil, and the yarsagumba is pulled out slowly. The soil is put back again so the field is not ruined for next year’s harvest. Another picker cleans the fungus with a toothbrush.

  9. Thomas L. Kelly

    Yarsagumba, also known by the scientific name Cordyceps sinesis, has been prescribed by traditional healers in Asia for centuries to treat lung and kidney diseases, build up bone marrow and stop hemorrhaging. But it is prized for its reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac that boosts men’s sexual prowess

  10. Thomas L. Kelly

    Pickers carefully crawl on their knees and hands, so they don’t miss a single precious yarsagumba shooting its tail out of soil.

  11. Thomas L. Kelly

    Prem Lama is a big buyer of yarsagumba. In Katmandu, Nepal’s capital, the price for the fungus is around 1.4 million rupees per kilogram, equivalent to roughly $20,000.

  12. Thomas L. Kelly

    Yarsagumba was unknown in the Western world until 1994, when two female Chinese athletes at the Asian Games set new world records for mid- and long-distance running. The runners’ controversial coach told foreign reporters that the women got their edge from daily doses of yarsagumba.


    To see more photography by Thomas L. Kelly, visit

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La Toya Tooles is a web producer for The Center for Investigative Reporting. La Toya received her master’s degree in digital media journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a B.A. in print journalism. She has written for The Brooklyn Ink,, OhDang!Mag, The Afro American, The Golden Gate [X]Press and the Western Edition.