Giving yarsagumba a chance for regrowth

A typical landscape of yarsa, alpine meadow above treeline and below snowline. Pictured here is Manang’s Chuli Peak. All photos: ACHYUT TIWARI

A young girl in the Ray-Ban sunglass is singing along to the tune of a song playing on a portable woofer she is carrying. She has just come out of Yak Kkharkha lodge in Upper Manang and is on her way to collect yarsagumba for the day.

Throughout the yarsa-picking season from March to June, Tashi Gurung has been going to the meadows daily to pick the valuable caterpillar fungus. She is happy about how much she has collected this season.

“I feel energised and happy when I manage to gather 50 or more pieces a day but when we pick only a few, me and my friends have to go hungry,” says Gurung.

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Highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine, yarsagumba is supposed to have health benefits and can fetch up to $110,000 per kg in Beijing. It is extensively hunted across the Himalayas and in Nepal, caravans of people from rural villages move to the higher elevations to follow the pre-monsoon yarsa gold rush every year. Demand has gone up during the pandemic due to the belief that the fungus has therapeutic properties.

They do not get anywhere near international prices, but the lucrative hunt has largely lifted many parts of rural Nepal from poverty, allowing them to afford food, healthcare and education.

This year the price of yarsa at the collection site is Rs300-350 per piece depending on the quality, but the caterpillar fungus can get harvesters up to Rs1,000 if it’s larger and golden yellow in colour.

Local contractors usually buy the fungus from collectors as soon as it is picked. This rids collectors from having to clean and dry it as well as prevents theft and bargaining.

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“We have more than 1,000 collectors this season in this area and over half of them are from Gorkha,” says another collector Dhan Bahadur Gurung.

Dwindling harvests of the 'Himalayan viagra' can lead to conflict. In 2009, seven pickers from Gorkha were killed in Manang's Nar Phu region in a dispute with locals. Six local people were convicted of the murders.

Tashi Gurung of Manang’s Nagawal is among more than 20 local contractors involved in Yarsagumba trade from Upper Manang and has a target of trading 10kg of yarsa worth Rs20 million this season.

But over-harvesting and rapid environmental change in higher elevation areas of the Himalaya have meant that this unique Himalayan fungus is in steep decline.

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As it is, very little is known about the life cycle of this composite species which is a fungus that grows out of a caterpillar hibernating underground. Now, intensified human activity during collection such as digging and trampling, and increasing day temperature and early melting of snow have affected the regeneration of the fungus.

Unseasonal spring blizzards due to climate change could also be affecting the life cycle of the fungus, which is sensitive to the duration and extent of snowfall.

For example, heavy snowfall on the last week of May at Upper Manang earlier this year was unusual for the season and halted the yarsa hunt of over a thousand local collectors who were stranded in their shelters.

Yarshagumba Ophiocordyceps sinensis is commonly called the Chinese Caterpillar Fungus. The formation of Yarsagumba is due to the parasitism of larvae of swift moths, resulting in the development of fruiting bodies which is a highly popular herbal remedy.

After the germination of larvae by a fungus, the latter kills the insect and mummifies it. From the fruit body, a dark brown colour emerges from the dead insect and stands upright, taking the form of yarsagumba.

Yarsagumba is found at 3,500-5,000m above sea level in Himalayan meadows of Nepal, Bhutan, India and Tibet. In Nepal, it is collected from more than 12 districts including Darchula, Dolpa, Jumla, Mugu, Bajang, Rukum, Myagdi, Manang, Gorkha, Rasuwa, Sindhupalchok and Sankhuwasabha.

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Yarsa from Nepal is exported to the high demand countries such as Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, and Japan.

Harvesting and selling of yarsagumba was banned until 2001 in Nepal. But the government later re-allowed it as long as collectors paid a royalty. it can now only be collected and traded after getting annual local and national approval.

This year there was a steep increase in the number of registered collector in the Annapurna Conservation Area Project with 1,000 permits issued. The steep increase in the numbers is due to a pause during the last two years of the pandemic.

Achyut Tiwari is plant ecologist at the Central Department of Botany at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu