Noida, Sep 11 : The mad rush to harvest expensive caterpillar fungus in the higher Himalayan region of Uttarakhand is taking a toll on the fragile ecosystem of the alpine meadows.

Researchers studying the harvest and trade aspects of the Cordyceps fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) say the high market price of the species in China coupled with limited manpower of the state's forest department have resulted in the uncontrolled collection of the species. They say it is causing soil cover destruction, felling of alpine trees for fuelwood and hunting of endangered animals for food by the harvesters.

Cordyceps is considered a potent aphrodisiac and energy booster and deemed to cure lung, liver and kidney problems in the traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines. Every year between May and July, thousands of villagers in the state embark on an arduous journey to the higher reaches with their domesticated animals, tents and sacks of supplies and stay for two months to harvest it.

A scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India, Amit Kumar, who has carried out research on the fungus species at Nanda Devi National Park near Joshimath, informed that the harvesters sometimes kill wild animals, including endangered ones such as blue sheep and musk deer, for food during their stay in the meadows.

He said that during the course of his research when he interacted and worked with the locals who went to harvest the fungus, he found out that it's difficult for the harvesters to survive on potatoes and wheat and thus they hunt wild animals for meat.

The alpine meadows are home to numerous rare species of flora and fauna like snow leopard, Himalayan blue sheep (bharal), Aconite (Aconitum heterophyllum), Brahmakamal (Saussurea obvallata) and Costus (Saussurea costus).

Dehradun-based environmental researcher Subhajit Saha revealed that the villagers carry firearms with them to the meadows to hunt wild animals like blue sheep, rabbits and red foxes for their meat. He noted that hunting of wild animals is not allowed in India and only the species that have been declared as vermins can be hunted and that too after getting permission from the state forest department. Bharal, which is an endangered species and comes under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, continues to be hunted, he stated.

While the officials with the forest department have strong suspicion that the villagers during their stay at the meadows hunt wild animals, the lack of evidence prevents them from taking action. A forest department official from Pithoragarh, on the condition of anonymity, told 101Reporters that while hunting cases against villagers are rare, it's common knowledge that during their stay, they not only hunt wild animals for food but also poach them as they are well-versed with the terrain.

Topsoil affected Cordyceps is an entomopathogenic fungus (a fungus that grows on insects) which seeks shelter in the larva of ghost moths (Family Hepialidae). It germinates inside the caterpillar, kills and mummifies it.

"The fungus attacks the larva under the soil and eventually a stalk-like body of the fungus emerges out of the caterpillar body. Harvesters crawl on the surface and dig [the] soil to collect the fungus," says Dr Subrat Sharma, a scientist with the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment & Sustainable Development.

Environmental researcher Saha revealed that the alpine meadows are mostly rocky and have a thin layer of soil that takes hundreds of years to form. He added that the harvesters dig up the soil to collect the fungus, damaging the surface layer of the area.

The demand for the fungus reportedly shot up in 1993 when three Chinese athletes broke five world records at the Beijing National Games after regularly consuming a tonic apparently made from the fungus.

The fungus, locally known as Keeda Jadi, was introduced to the locals in Uttarakhand by migrant Nepalese labourers. It is known as Yartsagunbu in Tibet and Yarsagumba in Nepal.

Harvesting of the fungus began around Askot region in 1996-1997 from where the practice gradually spread into different valleys.

Today, most of the households in and around Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and Askot area rely on the caterpillar fungus for their livelihoods. Harvest of the fungus has transformed the lives of the people, bringing in a much-needed economic boost to the villagers of these far-flung areas, which have traditionally been reliant on herding and subsistence agriculture.

There is a well-established network of local middlemen, brokers and merchants in the border townships of Dharchula and Munsiyari in Uttarakhand. The proximity to the porous border with Nepal and Tibet makes it easier for traffickers.

A local seller usually fetches around $20,000 (over Rs14 lakh) for a kilogramme of Cordyceps, making it a lucrative business for the villagers. A family of four on an average harvests around 150 grams during a season.

Decline in numbers In the last 10 years, researchers say, harvesting has become more intense, causing a decline in the yield. Dwindling collection of the fungus has made the harvesters prolong their stay in the meadows for a better chance of finding the elusive species. The fungus is found in the alpine meadows between 3,500 and 5,000 metres above sea level.

A portion of the land where these fungi grow fall under the van panchayat (village council) land and has been distributed amicably between the residents of the villages. Saha highlighted that the harvesters cross over to protected lands of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries regularly in their quest for the fungus.

"Prior permission is required to extract wildlife resources from restricted areas. However, the caterpillar fungus harvesters often harvest in these areas because of the unavailability of forest staff to monitor their activities," stated Saha.

Higher anthropogenic pressure in the meadows in the form of an increased number of harvesters and the number of days they spend in search of the fungus also leads to the dumping of non-biodegradable waste like plastic bottles on the surface and open defecation, contaminating water sources of the landscape.

"Thousands of villagers go for mass-collection of the species each year, along with their tents, food, other consumables and domestic animals. These huge aggregations in the remote pastures are bound to destroy the pristine nature of the ecosystems and the threatened species that inhabit them," Pramod Kumar Yadav, a researcher who has carried out research projects on the fungus, told 101Reporters.

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