A Gold Rush in the Mountains

Chandrima Home

The caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), commonly known as Keera jari (in Hindi) and Yartsagunbu (in Tibetan) is famous for its use in traditional Asian medicine, sometimes selling at prices higher than its weight in gold. A recent study in the Indian Himalayas investigates how this fungus influences the livelihoods and economics of local communities and the possible ecological consequences of overharvesting and exploitation of this natural resource.

Caterpillar fungus in its natural habitat
Caterpillar fungus in its natural habitat  (Photo: Pramod K Yadav)

Imagine a fungus that sells for more than its weight in gold! Colloquially termed as Keera jari (in Hindi) and Yartsagunbu (in Tibetan), the caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is perhaps one of the most expensive biological commodities in the world. Being such a sought after commodity also makes this species and its surrounding ecosystem highly vulnerable. A recent study in the Indian Himalayas investigates how this resource contributes to local livelihoods and the possible consequences of harvest and trade over time. 

The caterpillar fungus parasitises the larvae of ghost moths (Family Hepialidae). It germinates inside the caterpillar, kills and mummifies it, and a stalk-like fruiting body emerges out of the zombie caterpillar. Both the ghost moths and the parasitising fungus are found at an altitude of 3000 – 5000m in the alpine meadows of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas. 

So what makes this fungus so coveted? Often referred to as a medicinal mushroom”, this species has been used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine. The high demand for its medicinal properties along with a restricted area of occurrence increases the prospect for overexploitation of this fungus. 

In the current study, scientists led by Pramod Yadav from Centre for Integration of Conservation and Developmental Accountability in collaboration with the Himalayan Exploration Conservation and Livelihood Program, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Global Tiger Forum, Forest Research Institute, HNB Garhwal University and University of Southern Queensland, examined the harvest and trade of caterpillar fungus in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Uttarakhand. 

The authors interviewed 312 households across 32 villages in the Dhauliganga Valley within the Biosphere Reserve who were involved in the harvest and trade of the fungus. In addition to reporting the economics of the trade, the authors also gathered information on whether harvesters perceived any changes over these years of extraction. Overall, from 2006 to 2015, there was more than a threefold increase in the price of the fungus. Earnings from the fungus trade contributed a significant amount to the cash income for a majority of the households surveyed. 

However, when natural resources are harvested unsustainably, there are cascading effects on both the ecological and the socio-economic fabric of the system. Local harvesters not only felt that there was a decline in the fungus availability but also reported a per capita reduction in the number of units harvested from the meadows. 

More importantly, the increasing demand for this fungus for its medicinal properties along with the absence of a clear policy for harvest has created a black market. Existing government-based guidelines regarding harvest and trade are inadequate for sustainability of the trade,” says Yadav. Promoting sustainable harvest, equitable trade, and conservation of caterpillar fungus requires sufficient knowledge on trade dynamics and the legal status in caterpillar fungus range states,” he adds. 

Caterpillar fungus harvesters
Left: A female caterpillar fungus’ harvester in the alpine meadows (Photo: Subhajit Saha) ; Right: Tents and cattle of caterpillar fungus’ harvesters in the meadows (Photo: Pramod K Yadav) 

Absence of a legal status of this trade along with diminishing production of the fungus have also led to community disputes over areas of collection. The trade of the caterpillar fungus is a relatively new source of livelihood for the people living in this valley,” says Yadav.

While income generated from harvest and trade is high, there are several risks that harvesters are exposed to while collecting this fungus. Harsh climatic conditions on a treacherous terrain, snow-blindness, painful joints, respiratory issues and increased human animal interactions are some of the risks that they face,” says Yadav. 

The ecological impacts of overharvesting can be manifold. The caterpillar fungus is harvested for a very small window in spring (May-July) each year during which large numbers of people camp in these meadows exposing them to trampling, soil compaction and deposition of garbage Overharvesting of caterpillar fungus also triggers the exploitation of several highly medicinal and aromatic plants, ultimately affecting these fragile habitats,” says Amit Kumar, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India. The study not only provides a detailed account of the economic and social aspects of the trade but also raises a concern for the decline of keera jari,” he adds. 

But can overharvesting be the only reason for the decline of the caterpillar fungus? A recent study shows that harvesting may not be the sole threat. A warming climate has also been contributing to its decline thereby being a double whammy’ for the species. 

The study provides important evidence on the various socio-economic aspects of trade of the caterpillar fungus. A nexus of black economy and an impending decline in the availability of the fungus necessitates the need for sustainable management policies. Biodiversity conservation depends on local support,” says Yadav. Therefore formulating these policies require adequate dialogue between government authorities and local communities along with awareness so that both conservation and livelihood securities are reconciled.

Did you enjoy this article? Let us know in the comments below

Written By

Chandrima is a PhD survivor and a full time mom. She is trying to bridge the science and communication divide by being a more communicative scientist