Tales and trails from the mountains: in search of the ‘Himalayan gold’
The communities who historically lived in the upper region of the western Himalaya were associated with ancient silk routes used for trans-border trade between Tibet and the lowlands of India. However, following the Indo–China conflicts in 1962, the trade with Tibet ceased completely. After the traditional trade disappeared, the Bhotias community was forced to explore other means of making a living. Mountain dwellers in the region based their livelihoods on subsistence agriculture, exploitation of non-timber forest products, herding, and manufacture and sale of woollen products. But livelihood opportunities became scarcer when part of the area was protected as the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in 1982, which led to protest and conflicts between local people and the protected area management authority. The once prosperous community was living under impoverished conditions as regulations to protect the environment were implemented.
As the local community searched for a solution, migrant labourers from Nepal—who worked on a temporary basis with some households—introduced them to caterpillar fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis. This fungal parasite attacks the larvae of ghost moths (Hepialidae) and is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau, including the adjoining high Himalaya (between 3,200 to 4,500 m altitude). It is known locally as Kira Jari (in India), Yartsagunbu (in Tibet), Yarso Gumbub (Bhutan), Dong Chong Xia Cao (China) and Yarsagumba (in Nepal). For centuries, caterpillar fungus has been used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine as a tonic, aphrodisiac and as a medicine for lung, liver and kidney problems. Today, it is widely traded as an aphrodisiac in the form of a tonic named ‘Himalayan Viagra’. Global trade of caterpillar fungus rapidly expanded after the 1993 World Athletic Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, where Chinese athletes reportedly used dietary supplements including caterpillar fungus and turtle blood and set multiple records in distance running.
In the Indian Himalaya, harvesting of caterpillar fungus began in the Askot area in 1996–1997, from where the practice gradually spread into different valleys. Today, every household in and around the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and the Askot area relies on the caterpillar fungus for their livelihoods. However, this new natural commodity has also brought several ecological and social issues to the region.
In 2015 a project was implemented to study the complexities associated with caterpillar fungus harvest and trade, aiming to ensure the fungus’ conservation and sustainable use. The researchers were supported with financial grants and mentorship from the Conservation Leadership Programme and additional funding from the Rufford Foundation and Idea Wild. The project team conducted several expeditions, documenting the benefits and drawbacks caterpillar fungus harvest and trade in the western Himalaya. Their study, published in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, provides insights into how the fungus trade is transforming the livelihoods of mountain dwellers in the region and highlights issues associated with the exploitation of this resource.
The demand for and price of caterpillar fungus are continuously increasing as a result of resource scarcity and high consumer demand. The researchers found that the mean annual buying price by local traders in villages rose steadily from c. USD 4,700 per kg in 2006 to more than USD 13,000 per kg in 2015. This has led to local people gathering ever increasing quantities of caterpillar fungus. These mass-collections are carried out by thousands of villagers who bring their tents, food and domestic animals and set up camp in the alpine pastures. After their work is done, harvesters often leave the camp sites in a poor state, with litter strewn across the landscape, a practice that has a profound impact on this ecologically-sensitive habitat.
Given that this activity has become one of most important sources of income for the communities in the region, it is vital to find sustainable solutions to ensure their livelihoods in the long term. The study recommends that the currently rampant exploitation be regulated and sustainable harvesting schemes be implemented to ensure the survival of the caterpillar fungus. This would also help with the general conservation of alpine meadow habitats, which are home to numerous threatened species, including the snow leopard Panthera uncia. Market-based conservation initiatives would help encourage sustainable harvesting of caterpillar fungus and protect the native fauna and flora in the Himalaya.
If you would like to read more about this study, the paper ‘Yartsagunbu: transforming people’s livelihoods in the Western Himalaya’ is now freely available until January 31 in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.