The extraordinary tale of the extraordinary fungus found widely in some snow leopard habitat.
At this time of year, high up in the Himalayas, multitudes of people can be seen combing the ground beneath them, as if looking for something lost. They proceed slowly on their hands and knees, painstakingly covering every square inch of hillside. Every so often, one stops, pulls out a trowel and digs carefully in the soil. Then they lift their prize to examine it in the light – a small, wizened, root-like object, its pale yellow colour obscured by a dusting of soil. Welcome to yartsagunbu season in Nepal. Welcome to the goldrush.
Yartsagunbu is a highly-prized fungus found mostly in high altitude areas of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Its Chinese name translates literally as ‘summer grass, winter worm’ and this clever piece of indigenous knowledge gives a clue to its origin. Every summer, subterranean moth larvae of a certain species in high altitude grasslands are infected by the Cordiceps fungus. This parasite takes over its host’s body, transforming it gradually over the winter into the substance known as yartsagunbu. It is so highly prized by users of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a cure-all, that high-quality yartsagunbu can fetch prices of up to £30,000 per kg in Shanghai.
We’ve been on hand to witness at least some of this incredible process. The yartsagunbu season has just started here in certain parts of Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA). Walking downhill from the village of Upper Pisang we were passed by multitudes of people heading in the opposite direction, a tidal wave of humanity flowing uphill. Clearly identifiable as lowlanders by their faces and attire, these individuals, families and groups had travelled from far and wide to join the locals in the search for yartsagunbu in the Pisang area.
Staying in the home of the chairman of Pisang’s Conservation Area Management Committee (CAMC) – the devolved committee responsible for conservation and natural resource management in that particular location – we also witnessed the vast amounts of cash changing hands on yartsagunbu permit day, a mandatory requirement for collecting the stuff. The tables groaned under the weight of NR1,000 (US$10) bills as the CAMC members counted their takings. It was more money than any of us had ever seen in our lives. But in those great quantities of cash lie both the blessings and the curse of yartsagunbu.
Yartsagunbu provides a welcome source of income for often very poor people. Unlike real gold mining, the start-up costs are low and the barriers to entry few. Locals pay NR1,800 ($18) for a collection permit annually, and outsiders pay NR18,000 ($180) in the Pisang area. All you need to become a yartsagunbu mining magnate is a knowledge of where to find it, a lot of patience and a little luck. The permit fees are also retained locally for community conservation and development projects.
Given the street-value of the substance, however, the stakes are high. Lowlanders often come unprepared and ill-equipped for the harsh conditions high up on the mountainsides. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) takes some of the unaclimatised. Avalanches take others, particularly at this time of year as the sun warms and weakens winter snowfall. People go into debt to buy the yartsagunbu permit but their Asian El Dorado never materialises and they are left in penury. Children are taken out of school to join the search – with their sharper eyesight they are especially prized as fungal goldminers. And some outsiders are even killed by locals who jealously guard their pot of yartsagunbu gold, as happened in the NarPhu region of ACA a few years back.
But what of the snow leopard in all of this? On one hand, the crowds of people entering their habitat and disturbing its fauna and the flora may cause some disturbance, especially if the legal yartsagunbu collection is accompanied by illegal poaching, as sometimes happens. Yet the collection of this fungus is still a relatively benign form of TCM, particularly when compared with the brutality of the rhino horn and tiger bone trade. If equitably and sustainably managed, yartsagunbu collection should provide a secure source of income in the long-term. If this diversification of livelihoods away from a sole dependence on livestock also reduces people’s vulnerability and animosity to the snow leopard then more’s the better.
For people, though, the results of yartsagunbu collection are mixed, especially for outsiders. Like other goldrushes, it attracts the full spectrum of humanity: rich and poor, old and young, desperate and secure. And like other goldrushes, the pursuit of yartsagunbu makes princes of some and paupers of others.