Nepal’s Aphrodisiac War
Credit: Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images

As twilight falls across the snowy peaks of central Nepal, just over a steep ridge from the iconic Annapurna trekking trail, a herder scans the shadows with binoculars, searching for a lost yak. From a perch high above the tiny cliffside village of Nar, he spots a stealthy movement in a desolate meadow below the snow line. He sharpens the image. It's a young man, a stranger. Behind him is another. Eventually five more men creep into view, most still boys in their late teens, led by a man in his mid-30s. The herder knows immediately who they are and why they are there.

The Annapurna region is the ancient homeland of the Manang people; the intruders are from the Gurkha tribe, dirt-poor neighbors of the Manang in Nar. This ragged band of men has come 60 rugged miles to plunder Nar's riches: its fields of yarsagumba, a tiny, wrinkled fungus that is, by weight, the most valuable tonic in Chinese medicine. It has been prized for centuries as a potent aphrodisiac and elixir of youth; tradition holds that it will prolong virility through long winter nights and throughout a long life. On a good day, a yarsagumba picker can bag 400 pieces, gently yanking up the subterranean fungus by the gracile fruiting stem it sends up. He can then sell his harvest for as much as $1,000 – in a country where the average annual income is $500.

His lost yak forgotten, the herder quickly clambers down the scrubby hillside to spread the alarm. The village elders convene a hasty meeting to organize a posse. Mukhya, the communal law of the Himalayas, requires that one adult male from each of Nar's 63 households join the posse, so the guilt will be collective. During the night the men lay an ambush, surrounding the poachers' high, isolated position. As the mild June night wanes, the group's fury at the violation builds: They will do whatever it takes to protect their wealth.

At dawn a force of the fittest Manang youths storms the Gurkha camp, attacking with sticks and iron farming tools. The enraged Manangi beat two of the intruders to death on the spot and throw the bodies into a deep icy crevasse. They round up the other five and herd them down the mountain, where more men are waiting. There the beatings continue and quickly escalate. The angry mob rips the life from the poachers, bashing their heads with rocks. Every member of the group, including boys as young as 12, is required to strike a blow.

They then cut the five corpses into small pieces, wrap them in plastic, and throw them into a glacial torrent that carries them far away. Hands spattered with blood and splinters of bone, the 65 men and boys of the village sit in a mountaintop conclave and swear a solemn oath, promising never to tell anyone what they've done, not even their wives. It takes only a month for the murderers' pact to unravel and their secret to come out, as blood secrets always do.