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Conservation and Sustainability of Caterpillar Fungus in the Himalayas

About Caterpillar Fungus: Caterpillar Fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is an entomopathogenic species of fungus within the fungal-family Ophiocordycipitaceae that lives on caterpillars of a number of species of Ghost Moths (family Hepialidae). This obligatory parasite is host-specific and is found only in the high-altitude meadow habitats of the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. The fungus-infected caterpillar dies after a certain period of time with a stick-like fungal stroma (fruiting body) coming out of its head like the horn of a unicorn.

The caterpillar fungus is variously known as Yartsa Gunbu (Tibetan), Yarsha Gumba (Nepalese), Dong-chong Xia-cao (Chinese), Keera Jari/Keera Ghaas (India & Nepal), Himalayan Gold, and Himalayan Viagra.

A cache of dried Caterpillar Fungus ready to be sold

Why this is important: The caterpillar fungus has been in use in traditional Tibetan medicines for centuries as an aphrodisiac and an all-rounder medicine for treating various health problems. Although unknown to the world or ignored till about 30 years ago, reported use of it by athletes to increase physical efficiency led to a tremendous hype about its purported superpower as a medicine and aphrodisiac, especially in China, in the early '90s. This led to a huge demand of the fungus and subsequent intensified collection and exploration of newer areas where it occurred, popularly termed as the "Himalayan Gold Rush". This also multiplied the market price of the fungus many times, which presently stands anywhere between USD 30,000 - 140,000/kg (INR 20L - 1Cr).

Women collecting caterpillar fungus from a high-altitude meadow in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, India

The heightened demand and the ever-increasing price of the fungus created immense influences both in the local as well as the international economy. It is also affecting the delicate ecology of the high-altitude meadow ecosystems of the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the region home to the caterpillar fungus.

About the project: The caterpillar fungus collection and trade has great impact on the livelihoods of the inhabitants of remote mountainous areas who have limited traditional or alternate livelihood means. Although it provides the much needed economic support to the local communities, the yearly collection puts substantial pressure on the high-altitude meadow ecosystems as well as the fungus. The project is therefore aimed at,

 

1. Evaluating the livelihood impacts of the caterpillar fungus

2. Addressing the conservation issues surrounding it

3. Finding sustainable solutions to the problems

4. Researching policy aspects, and

5. Awareness generation. 

Project timeline: The project was initiated by Subhajit Saha in July 2013 as an independent study in the Dhauliganga Valley (Niti Valley) of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Uttarakhand, India. A preliminary questionnaire survey was started during that time with the help of the only other team member Surajit Dutta, along with a background study. The project got a major boost in terms of funding and exposure through a Future Conservationist Award by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP, UK) in 2015. A reconstituted team was led by Pramod Yadav for the CLP funded project, in an independent capacity. The Rufford Foundation, UK, later supported the project with further funding as individual grants to Pramod Yadav.

Publications:

Yadav, P. K., Saha, S., Mishra, A. K., Kapoor, M., Kaneria, M., Kaneria, M., … Shrestha, U. B. (2019). Yartsagunbu: transforming people’s livelihoods in the Western Himalaya. Oryx, 53(02), 247–255. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605318000674

A remote high-altitude Himalayan village, home to caterpillar fungus collectors. Malari, Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, India