Monday, June 11, 2012

Nepal's Wonder drug- a wild fungus

As summer months approach, the villagers from Nepalese districts of Darchula and Dolpa, bordering Tibet, are all out on a mission. A visitor may actually find that the villages are all empty. Villagers are all out in the northern, high altitude Himalayan mountain ranges. They all have a single mission, to hunt for and harvest a high-altitude wild fungus known as Yartsa gunbu or caterpillar fungus . This wild fungus has such a huge demand from neighbouring giant China that it is valued at more that US$ 25000 per Kilogram, the price placed somewhere in between silver and gold.

The word 'Yartsa gunbu' or 'Yarchagumba' means in Tibetan language 'summer plant, winter insect'. It is famous and prized for its aphrodisiac qualities, but also is used as a health supplement. The Tibetan name might be the correct description of this fungus, because Yartsa gunbu is effectively formed by two organisms, the larva of the Himalayan ghost moth and the Cordyceps fungus. The Cordyceps fungus spores attack the ghost moth larva, while it lives beneath the ground, kill it and cause a mushroom to sprout out of its head(Ophiocordyceps sinensis.) Chinese believe that since the fungus consists of both, an animal and a vegetable, it has an excellent balance of yin and yang and therefore boosts sexual performance. There has been no definitive research conducted so far by Western scientists on Yartsa gunbu and it was almost unknown in the west till 1993. In that year, the coach of Chinese women’s record-setting track team at the world championships in Stuttgart, had claimed that Yartsa gunbu was the secret behind the team's performance in Germany and he had given the fungus to the athletes in turtle blood. Normally Yartsa gunbu is served as boiled in water to make tea or added to soups and stews.

Whatever may be the truth in the claims regarding amazing power of Yartsa gunbu, fact remains that this export trade brings absolutely essential cash into the impoverished local economy of border districts of Nepal like Darchula, which earned in 2011 about US$85,000. The poor villagers of this district after their hunting forages in the northern mountains around heights nearing 15000 feet, can support their families for one year, if they have a decent haul of Yartsa gunbu in the period from April to June. So heavy is the competition for this fungus that in 2009, seven farmers from the village of 'Nar' were found murdered. In 2011 November, a court found a group of 19 villagers guilty of murder and convicted them.

The year 2012 however has not been good so far for the Yartsa gunbu hunters. There was less snow in winter and temperatures also were higher. Besides, there was no rain for two months in the area where this fungus thrives during winter snowfall, which is needed for the fungus to thrive. A study conducted recently by a PhD scholar at the University of Massachusetts and a research associate at Harvard University, Uttam Babu Shrestha has reported that Yartsa gunbu yields have declining considerably in 2012. He assigns, over and premature harvesting as the main reason for the problem besides climate change.

A harvester from remote northwestern district of Darchula says that “We returned home as we could not even collect more than 10 pieces of Yartsa gunbu in a month. Those who had collected 150 to 200 pieces last year could make it only 20 to 30 pieces.” Another harvester from Darchula says pessimally that “Production of Yartsa gunbu has declined over the past five years. If this situation remains same for some years, Yartsa gunbu might vanish.” In the district of Dolpa, which accounts for more than 50 percent of the trade with China, harvest has decreased from 267 pieces per harvester in 2006 to 125 pieces in 2010. This year is worst of all. There are 16 pastures in Dolpa for Yartsa gunbu harvesting. They opened in middle of May 2012. About 5000 villagers are now hunting for the fungus. Sadly, they have not been able to find any. till June 2012.

The non availability of Yartsa gunbu in the Chinese markets is bound to inflate the prices. Real problem however would be faced by poor people of Nepal, who essentially survive on this trade. They have very difficult days ahead of them.

11 June 2012

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