Yarsagumba, an endemic species to the Himalayan region found in the elevation of 3000-5000 m, is regarded as one of the most valuable mushroom species in the world because of its medicinal properties. It is a very sought after species especially in the Chinese medicinal market. Various Tibetan and Chinese scriptures dating back to the AD 618 during the Tang Dynasty period have mentions of this unique species that transforms to plant from an animal during summer season and back to plant in the winter. These scriptures are referring to the unique lifecycle of Yarsagumba. Its lifecycle starts from a caterpillar, which then gets infested by the spores of mushroom. The spores mummify the caterpillar and sprout out of it, killing the caterpillar. Thus, the lower part of Yarsagumba is a dead caterpillar whereas the upper part is a mushroom. Some of the local names for it are Jara (root), Chyau kira (mushroom insect), Kira ghas (Insect grass) etc that aptly describe the characteristics of the caterpillar fungus.
The medicinal uses of Yarsagumba has also been well documented. For centuries, it has been used by the local communities as tonic and aphrodisiac. More thorough studies have been conducted in relation to its medicinal values, which have concluded that yarsagumba has anticancer and anti-inflammation properties and is also beneficial in the treatment of asthma and high blood pressure, among others. These studies have helped realize its value in the medical field and opened the doors to the rest of the world to this Himalayan herbal species.
The Himalayan region supports a wide variety of medicinal plants. The economy of these communities is primarily driven by the trade of the medicinal plants, especially yarsagumba. Dolpa is the largest district that lies in the western part of Nepal. Dolpa is also one of the prime locations in the Himalayan region for yarsagumba availability. Yarsagumba is an important source of income in the North Western districts of Nepalese households. A study found that the harvesters can fetch around Rs 800 ($ 8) from a single piece and on average of Rs 120,000 ($ 1200) per harvest season. Similarly, another study indicated that yarsagumba accounts for about 72 % of the total annual household income among the harvesters.
Yarsagumba is found in difficult terrain at high altitudes. It requires permafrost areas that are well below 0 degrees Celsius, where the soil isn’t frozen permanently. So, it is very difficult to harvest yarsagumba, mainly due to the geographical region where it is found.
In recent years, a high demand of it in the market has increased the competition for its harvest, hence significantly decreasing its abundance. Yarsagumba is a common pool resource and it is often difficult to manage. Everyone has equal rights over the natural resources which leads to its destruction over the period of time resulting in the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ as highlighted by Hardin. The decrease in its abundance due to overharvest and exploitation has forced the harvesters to higher altitudes in search for yarsagumba, which is very risky in an extremely difficult terrain.
Yarsagumba plays an important role in the socio-economic aspect of the communities in Dolpa. The decrease in the number of yarsagumba will have a significant impact on their livelihoods. So, it is important to understand the issues and challenges faced by these communities to push for sustainable management policies. So, here are some of the major problems in regard to yarsagumba harvesting.
Yarsagumba harvesting as an ‘expedition’
Unlike the harvest of other crops, yarsagumba harvesting is rather an expedition. This expedition ranges from a few weeks to months depending on the needs of the family and the numbers of yarsagumba collected in the process. People in Dolpa take the journey where they travel 3-4 hours to the campsites in the mountains to set up their tents which they will use as their temporary housing throughout their expedition in the mountains. Like any other expedition, families that are set to travel to the mountains start planning for the expedition a few weeks beforehand. They start getting the necessary items ready such as tents and blankets to keep them warm and food items that will last them throughout their stay in the mountains. The high market value of yarsagumba attracts people from all over the country to make this difficult journey to the mountains.
Depletion in yarsagumba numbers
Recent years have seen a significant decrease in the numbers of yarsagumba in the environment. This is caused by overharvesting of the species, degradation of fragile mountain ecosystem and lack of proper management plan. A lot of the challenges faced by the harvesters are interconnected and most of the other issues mentioned below arise due to the depletion in their numbers.
Yarsagumba is found in an altitude ranging from 3000 meters to 5000 meters in the Himalayan region. The availability of yarsagumba in these higher altitudes is one of the major problems for harvesters. Higher altitudes have various health implications such as headache, dizziness, nausea which are mainly symptoms of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is also one of the leading causes of death among the harvesters. Like the higher altitude, mountainous terrain also poses a significant challenge to the harvesters. The terrain, where yarsagumba is found, is oftentimes steep and rocky. Thus, it is a major challenge to get to these places. Similarly, overharvesting has caused depletion in the numbers of yarsagumba which has forced harvesters to move to higher altitudes in search of yarsagumba. This increases the chances of getting altitude sickness.
Low Cost-Benefit of the harvest
In recent years, the yarsagumba harvest has lost its charm and popularity especially among the locals of Dolpa. The main reason that can be attributed to this is depletion of yarsagumba numbers. Similarly, it is also costly to harvest yarsagumba. The locals who can’t afford the journey take out loans and pay them back with the yarsagumba that they collected in the mountains. Throughout the past few years, the number of yarsagumba harvested by each individual has decreased significantly. This expensive and life-threatening journey to collect yarsagumba has started yielding less benefit to the people which is also a major cause for concern. Moreover, people in Dolpa have a limited understanding of the market demands of yarsagumba. So, the harvesters are paid well below the market prices by the traders.
The process of yarsagumba harvesting is not just expensive, but also life threatening. It is a labor-intensive job that requires the harvesters to crawl in the cold and snow-covered ground for hours in search of the caterpillar fungus. The reward of finding yarsagumba in the mountains is high, but so is the risk. So, a lot of people make the journey out of necessity. Recently, development of transportation and infrastructures in Dolpa have opened new opportunities for the locals. Hence, due to the decrements in the benefits procured by the harvesters coupled with the opening of other safer opportunities, yarsagumba harvest has lost its charm among the local communities.
The issue of depletion in yarsagumba numbers is a direct result of over harvesting. The rate of decline in the numbers of yarsagumba is alarming. In 2019, the caterpillar fungus was enlisted as a vulnerable category in the IUCN Red List. The IUCN Red List is an indicator of the overall health of a species that takes into consideration the population size and density, habitat, ecological range and threats to the species. According to the IUCN guidelines, a vulnerable species is considered to be at high risk of extension (IUCN, 2019). Thus, this situation is concerning not just from the harvester’s perspective, but from an environmental point of view as well.
Although many people are moving away from harvesting yarsagumba and looking for better opportunities, it is still a significant portion of the total annual income in many households. So, there is clearly a need for proper sustainable harvest guidelines which would address the issues and challenges faced by the harvesters.
There is a lack of knowledge and understanding on overharvesting and how it impacts the ecosystem of that place. Similarly, there has been no research conducted that studies the impact of climate change, more importantly the warming of winter temperatures on yarsagumba species. A proper study of these issues will help formulate a proper management plan to highlight the steps to sustainably harvest yarsagumba and also address the issues and challenges faced by the harvesters.