In Nepal, caravans of people can be seen climbing higher up the snow-capped Himalayas, carrying blankets, tents and cooking materials. Schools are closed and entire villages are emptied, aside from the elderly and the sick who cannot handle the harsh, steep and long trek thousands of meters above sea level. When the annual yarsagumba harvesting season hits, all available hands and eyes become engaged in the lucrative hunt.
Yarsagumba is a unique caterpillar-fungus fusion that occurs when parasitic mushroom spores (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) infect and mummify a ghost moth larva living in the soil. A spindly fungus later sprouts from the dead caterpillar host’s head. Two to six centimeters long, the fungus shoots above the soil, acting as a tiny, finger-shaped flag for harvesters to find. This peculiar hybrid is the world’s most expensive biological resource. Yarsagumba thrives in the picturesque peaks of the Himalayas, at altitudes of between 3000 and 5000 meters, in Nepal, India and Bhutan, and also on the “roof of the world” — the Tibetan Plateau. In Tibet, it’s called “Yartsa gunbu,” which translates to “summer grass winter worm.”
Yarsagumba via Shutterstock.com
Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for 2000 years, the caterpillar fungus is a highly prized tonic, touted for its ability to increase energy and vitality, strengthen lung and kidneys, treat cancer and asthma, and, perhaps most famously, cure impotence and boost libido — its supposed aphrodisiac effects earning it the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.” A 15th century Tibetan medical text also mentions the “faultless treasure,” which, “removes prana diseases, cures bile diseases, and does not raise the phlegm: a marvelous medicine. In particular, it especially increases semen.”
Reportedly, demand for the tonic skyrocketed after the 1993 World Championships in Athletics, when the manager of a group of dominant Chinese female distance runners, who would go on to smash world records, announced that his athletes had been fed a soup of yarsagumba and turtle blood. Daniel Winkler, an ecologist who has done extensive research on the fungus, explains in one of his articles that, “Among the wealthy and powerful in China,” yarsagumba, “has come to rival French champagne as a status symbol at dinner parties or as a prestigious gift.”
Locally in Nepal, harvesters get the equivalent of about $18 per gram (a single dried specimen weighs less than half a gram). But by the time yarsagumba is sold in China, the major international trade destination, it’s worth as much as $100 per gram. Gram for gram, that makes it more expensive than gold. The global market value has been assessed at between $5 and $11 billion.
Nepalese authorities lifted a ban on harvesting and selling yarsagumba in 2001, spurred by the impossibility of preventing its trade in a secluded, mountainous landscape. The nation is now the second largest supplier to the global market after Tibet, and although much of the trade still occurs secretly, the government collected about 5.1 million rupees in taxes (roughly $52,000) from the industry in 2011/2012. Research published in Biological Conservation last year notes that in the late 1980s, caterpillar fungus was traded for cigarettes, noodles and other goods rarely found in remote villages. Between 2001 (when the ban was lifted) and 2011, the local market price of yarsagumba spiked by 2300 percent.
While purchased and consumed by the prosperous, collecting and selling yarsagumba presents a critical income for some of the most impoverished Himalayan highlanders who etch out a living in one of the most extreme environments on earth.
Yarsagumba income supports isolated highlanders at both the village and family level.
Informal committees collect royalties from harvesters who pick in the local villagers’ customary pastures. A study in the Journal of Mountain Science details some of the different village development projects resulting from this revenue stream. These initiatives include: supporting local schools in hiring teachers, constructing micro-hydro power, establishing a community emergency fund and building roads and a hospital. In far-flung communities, neglected by the state, this revenue is clearly a critical development channel.
Another scholarly paper, recently published in Biological Conservation, looks at the caterpillar fungus’ contribution to the livelihoods of mountain communities.
Despite dependence on farming in Dolpa District (Nepal’s mid-west), fewer than 7 percent of people grow enough food for the entire year, making it one of the most food insecure districts in the country. And while agriculture is the main source of income, growing conditions are far from ideal. Yarsagumba is the second biggest contributor to household income, after farming, with 90 percent of people in the region harvesting the resource. In the 2010 picking season an estimated 50,000 people were involved in the harvest. The study found that caterpillar fungus is the biggest contributor to the cash economy of the poorest people, playing a key role in alleviating poverty by allowing isolated highland families to send their children to school, buy food, and pay off debt.
However, picking yarsagumba in freezing conditions with low oxygen levels is a precarious task, especially given that many harvesters lack proper shoes and have limited protection from the elements while they sleep at camps for the season (which generally runs for six weeks between May and July, weather depending). From cold alone, at least 13 people died in the 2014 picking season.
Freezing to death, avalanches, altitude sickness, slipping in the snow, and slicing flesh on sharp rocks are not the only hazards yarsagumba harvesters face. The yarsagumba gold rush has bought a curse of greed and banditry to remote mountain regions. Year after year during harvesting season, the Himalayas are rocked by resource conflict, robberies, and even murders.
Resource Conflict: a Side Effect of “Biological Gold”
News of a gruesome crime emerged from the remote mountains of Nepal a few years ago. In Manang District, close to the Nepal-Tibet border, a large posse of local men and boys, upon hearing of interlopers picking yarsagumba in their meadows, beat two of the suspected poachers to death, throwing their bodies down a deep crevasse before rounding up the remaining five, reportedly killing them with sticks and stones. In November 2009, six men were sentenced to life imprisonment and 13 others were convicted as accomplices in the mass murders.
This year has also proved to be a violent one.
Dolpa District is a fertile caterpillar fungus province, where about 40 percent of the country’s supply is sourced. In June, Dolpa was hit by a tragedy that raises important questions about resource management and the rights of indigenous peoples in remote mountain communities.
Reportedly, two men – Phurwa Tsering and Thundup Lama – from the Dho Village Development Committee (VDC) died after a violent clash between community members and police. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) details the series of events leading up to the deaths. In past years both the Buffer Zone Management Committee (BZMC) of the Shey-Phoksundo National Park and the local Dho committee have collected taxes from caterpillar fungus harvesters. This year, the BZMC hiked its royalties by as much as 300 percent, and also seized the local committee’s receipt books and share of royalties, saying that the village committee could no longer collect taxes from caterpillar fungus pickers who harvested in their customary pastures. Apparently adding to the tension, BZMC authorities had been threating to open up the Lang meadows – where locals graze yaks and other livestock in winter because it is the only pasture not covered in snow – to outside yarsagumba harvesters. Another grievance was the lack of government royalty money going into sustainable management of yarsagumba. On June 3, tensions spiraled. A protesting community was reportedly met with brutal police force. Police, accompanying BZMC officials, allegedly attacked villagers, killing two, injuring dozens, and detaining several, at least one of who reported being tortured in detention. Those arrested were also allegedly blackmailed with false murder charges unless they signed a document attesting that Phurwa died from falling off a cliff rather than from police brutality.
Monk and chairperson of the Dolpo Concern Centre, Sey Namkha Dorje, told Record that the region “had never suffered such violence before, not even during the Maoist war. An eighty-three-year old grandmother in a monastery told me, crying, that when she was young there was no rice to eat, but she never saw such cruelty.”
The Nepalese Human Rights Commission has investigated the incident but is yet to release its report.
Later that same month, a gang stole cash and yarsagumba worth $40 million rupees (the equivalent of more than $400,000) from a camp within the Phoksundo VDC in Dolpa District. The Asian Human Rights Commission notes that gang robberies in the Dolpa highlands occur annually. Listing a number of past incidents, the AHRC states, “The involvement of police and local politicians is strongly suspected in these armed gang robberies, as there is inordinate laxity in investigations.”
A Nepali Times article points out that, “Corruption, lawlessness, political protection of organized criminals involved in the yarsagumba trade means that the situation in northwestern Nepal today is similar to opium-producing regions like the Golden Triangle or Afghanistan.”
Call for Conservation
On top of the heavy burden of conflict and crime, a different kind of threat is hanging over harvesters’ livelihoods – dwindling stocks. Overharvesting, coupled with lack of regulation and investment into sustainable management, has experts concerned about the future of this unique medicinal fusion.
Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland, Uttam Babu Shrestha PhD, has done numerous studies on yarsagumba in Nepal. He reports that the average per capita harvest in Dolpa fell by about half between 2006 and 2010. Of more than 200 harvesters interviewed during his fieldwork, 95 percent believed that yarsagumba was becoming less available.
Shrestha told The Diplomat that the biggest challenge to sustainable collection of yarsagumba is “massive human pressure created by huge market value and demand.” Along with attracting increasing numbers of harvesters, the ecological impacts of which are “largely understudied,” the boom in trade has meant people are picking every single piece of yarsagumba, to the detriment of the natural reproduction process.
Shrestha said that the harvesting pressure is most intense in Nepal, where no single inch of habitat is left untouched, leaving fewer specimens to disseminate spores for future regeneration of the resource. A 2013 scholarly article by Shrestha and others mentions that most harvesters are motivated by an, “if not taken by me another will,” mentality, meaning that many pieces were picked prematurely, before they had reached a reproductive stage.
The decline in prevalence has been documented across the Himalayan yarsagumba nations. Yield on the Tibetan Plateau has shrunk 10-30 percent in the last three decades. Ecologist Daniel Winkler has noted that, “the collection intensity has increased so much that a balance that seemed to have functioned for centuries is now apparently at risk.” In Tibet, rather than leave past-prime yarsagumba in the ground to spread spores, investing in next year’s crop, as was done before the trade boom, dependence on the dwindling resource leads people to take everything they come across. This is despite the lower economic value and important ecological value of the over-mature pieces. Winkler wrote about a prevailing attitude, parallel to the mentality documented in Nepal, “When everybody quits picking the old ones, then I will quit too.”
There is a clear pattern of overharvesting. Still, Shrestha’s research points out that it’s not possible to attribute the decline in abundance to a single cause. Empirical evidence of the impacts of overharvesting on regeneration is lacking. Other possible reasons for the decline in yield include fewer ghost moths and larvae because of environmental factors, modification of the soil makeup, increased grazing of cattle in alpine pastures, and climate change.
On top of market pressures, Shrestha has identified a number of other barriers to sustainable management, “Complex and poorly understood natural history, poorly defined ownership of the Yarsa habitat, frequent conflicts between collectors, non-transparent and unfair trading system, and weak institutional mechanism are exacerbating the situation.”
Shrestha elaborated on the unfair trading system, saying it is shrouded in secrecy through the four or five tiers of the value chain from picker to market. He said that yarsagumba traders are doing business in a fearful environment where they are intimidated “not only by local goons but also by local administration, political parties.”
This point is echoed in a 2012 Salon article, which revealed that travelling dealers are given a shake-down by as many as 20 groups, “mostly political parties and corrupt local officials in the districts through which the harvested fungus is transported.” Another account in Outside Online states that extorting yarsagumba pickers was the primary income source for Maoist rebels during the civil war, which ended in 2006.
As a way to improve the situation, Shrestha suggested looking to Bhutan.
“In Bhutan there is an auction system controlled by central government in which both sellers and buyers can trade in the products. I think that system would allow collective bargaining rights to the harvesters and foster transparency in trade.”
When it comes to yarsagumba, Bhutan seems to be the model of best practice.
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) held a national workshop on conservation and management in Nepal earlier this year. One of the sustainability strategies identified as a result was bringing together regional stakeholders to share ideas and get inspiration from good examples set by Bhutan. Regional Programme Manager, Transboundary Landscapes at ICIMOD, Dr. Rajan Kotru told The Diplomat that the group is convinced a regional stakeholdership needs to be carved out to encompass the supply chain, which covers a string of countries.
He identified multiple other conservation measures. These included but were not limited to: start a consultation process in cooperation with Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation to sensitize local authorities and stakeholder communities to sustainability principles, create educational materials, and “Based on local/national stakeholder consultation, facilitate a policy shift and strategic focus on providing higher royalties to local communities, their capacity building on improved harvesting, equitable distribution and inclusive use of harnessed resources.”
Clear yarsagumba policy and investment in sustainability are severely lacking in Nepal. Given that the country is still in the process of writing its constitution, having emerged from a decade-long civil war and undergone a tumultuous transition from constitutional monarchy to republic, this is perhaps unsurprising. But addressing these conservation challenges means safeguarding a resource that supports some of the country’s most marginalized people. That is surely something worth fighting for.
Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.