The caterpillar mushroom Ophiocordyceps sinensis (syn. Cordyceps sinensis) is among the most valuable mushrooms in the world, and plays a major role for the local economies in its distribution area on the Tibetan Plateau and adjacent regions. Large proportions of its habitat fall into protected areas, and best practice of sustainable harvest is under discussion, considering both, O. sinensis as a valuable income source for rural poor and protection of its populations and habitat. This study aims for a detailed analysis of O. sinensis collection in a nature reserve in Southwest China. We found that harvesting is unevenly distributed among households and villages, with households who have access to the resource but lack adequate alternatives for income generation such as rewarding wage labor, fertile agricultural fields or harvest of other high value products being most involved. Although collection is de jure forbidden, authorities of the nature reserve apply adaptive management strategies for sustainable resource use. This includes the allocation of collection areas to communities based on their traditional land use strategies and the control of harvesters from outside, triggering self-policing of the resource by the local people. The strategies applied provide a promising model also for other protected areas where the caterpillar mushroom is collected.