Biosphere on the brink

Despite our best efforts, it is almost too late for nature in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Yarsagumba. Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

Yartsa gunbu, commonly dubbed the caterpillar fungus or ‘Nature’s Viagra’, is rightly famous across the Himalayas and beyond. 

And with a market value of between $20,000-40,000 per kg thanks to its huge medicinal properties, it’s small wonder people across the region are on their hands and knees across these mountains to track the stuff down.

But it’s not just for its extraordinary economic value that it’s worth admiring this wonder fungus. In fact, what’s far more remarkable is the sheer uniqueness of its genesis. 

Because yartsa gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis, yarsagumba in Nepali) is the sort of lifeform that is so extraordinary that the only place it could exist—outside the pages of a sci-fi novel or some extravagant Studio Ghibli anime—is in nature. 

Every single one of these tiny marvels is a product of metamorphosis: formed when the larva of a moth is implanted between 3,000 to 5,000m during the rainy season, then attacked by a parasitic fungus that gradually envelops it, to eventually create this sprout of phenomenal medicinal power. 

And scientists are still only just beginning to understand the yartsa gunbu’s properties. As well as the feted increase in libido it is believed to cause, it is also prized for its anti-inflammatory properties, and is used as a general tonic to improve stamina and reduce fatigue.

Yartsa gunbu is just one of the almost infinite varieties of natural life that surround us in a dizzying abundance across the Hindu Kush Himalaya. 

Because, while many of us are aware of the link between the sweeping expanse of these mountains, and the vast ice mass they contain, and the 10 great Asian rivers that rise here to water our crops, slake our thirsts and power our lives, these great ranges in altitude serve another purpose: their rapid shifts in contours creating world-famous havens for biodiversity, including many species found only here. 

And while the steep gradients have created many completely unique and wildly distinct lifeforms, in close proximity to each other, the sheer inaccessibility of the region’s terrain has meant that many of these lifeforms have been sheltered from human activities. Until now. 

This region holds an astonishing four of the world’s 36 global biodiversity hotspots; 12 of the global 200 eco regions, 575 Protected Areas, and 335 important bird and biodiversity areas. These are breathtaking figures – and ones we should be proud of, an abundance we should fight to protect, and be funded to maintain. 

Biodiversity hotspots
A map showing the four global biodiversity hotspots of the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Mountains of Central Asia, Himalaya, Indo-Burma and Mountains of South-West China. Map Source: Hi-Wise Report by ICIMOD

Instead, it’s the opposite that’s happening. With carbon pollution driving temperature rise and black carbon deposits on ice accelerating glacier loss and creating more erratic patterns of rainfall, and land-use change, this vast resource is declining at unprecedented speed. 

The situation is so bad that ecosystem researchers describe the Hindu Kush Himalaya as a “biosphere on the brink”. Or as the New York Times pithily put it in a headline last year, Animals Are Running Out of Places to Live. 

The HKH cryosphere is warming two times faster than the global average. Glaciers melted faster in the 2010s than the previous 10 years, and we will reach peak water demand by 2050. This will have enormous impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. That is only 26 years away.

We are also the most polluted region in the world now. Some of this is because of the industries that were exported from the west to this region, and the lack of access to cleaner technologies. But whatever the causes, whoever is to blame, the fact is that pollution has huge implications for not just human health, but also for biodiversity, crop production, and so on.

And already we’ve seen massive biodiversity decline. 70% of original biodiversity has been lost over the last century. And yet, to go back to the improbably arising caterpillar fungus, and other famous products of “nature’s medicine cabinet”, 85% of mountain communities remain dependent on this biodiversity and highland ecosystem services.

With grim predictability, yartsa gunbu availability is reported to be declining. And we already have many examples of large-scale ecosystem disruptions across the HKH. Rangeland quality is deteriorating, with a host of problems that accompanies that. We have various invasive and other species moving up. 

Tigers have been seen at 4000m above sea level – at unprecedented elevations. And we’ve got aggressive upslope movement of certain species at high altitudes, such as rhododendron shrubberies, impacting the growth of high value medicinal products and pastures in these areas. 

And the flipside is that we have the unintended consequences of conservation successes, with the rebounding of certain species sparking human wildlife conflict. Striking the right balance between human and animal life is extremely challenging, and another area that ICIMOD is working hard to address.

But having dedicated the largest part of my entire career to working to advance biodiversity protection and how it is valued in global fora, it pains me deeply that multiple commitments to protect nature that have been made over decades are still not being realised. What is clear too is that this situation is far more acute in the poorer and marginalised regions of the world – such as the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

It does not have to be this way, we also have good stories amidst all the news of habitat loss and degradation and species extinctions. 75% of Bhutan is forested, and 40% of Nepal – so two countries in this region are defying wider global trends in terms of deforestation. Pakistan, despite challenges, has committed to plant 10 billion trees. 

These shoots are coming from unexpected corners too, including, perhaps least likely of all allies, from the finance sector. 

Just this week, Brazil received $150M in foreign finance for Amazon rainforest protection. We’re starting to see capital markets shift finance flows into what really matters – a regenerative Earth.

While there is much to be done – currently, less than one per cent of the $460 billion per year needed to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030 has been delivered – there is a growing recognition of the fact that human survival depends on halting and reversing declines in nature. 

This week, ICIMOD has been honoured to host the third lead authors meeting of the IPBES nexus assessment. As the world’s foremost experts in nature stand in this, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the evidence of nature’s value is categorical.

Nature must be built into all investment and action. We need to accelerate policy, institutional and market reforms to make this happen – and push for a rapid increase in innovative global finance, especially to high-value and vulnerable regions like the Hindu Kush Himalaya. 

Global science processes such as IPBES and IPCC must continue to highlight the enormity of the challenge, deliver evidence on viable solutions, and communicate widely and persuasively. ICIMOD is proud to link arms with these key platforms to advance this crucial work, and at this crucial moment for the planet and our collective future.

Izabella Koziell is the Deputy Director General at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu.

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