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  • 'Himalayan viagra' harvesters threaten forest resources

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  • Dwindling caterpillar fungus supplies worry forest conservationists

  • The traditional medicine fetches high prices in the global market

  • As supplies drop, villagers may turn to poaching and timber felling

[KATHMANDU] Declining harvests of caterpillar fungus, also known as yarsagumba in the Himalayas, could lead to a relapse in efforts to conserve forests and biodiversity in the mountain region, according to two recent studies.

A paper in Ecosystem Services this month (05 February) suggests that shrinking yarsagumba supplies could lead to local villagers returning to the gathering of endangered medicinal plants and other forest produce for theior livelihoods.

Many Himalayan communities depend on gathering medicinal plants, timber trading and animal poaching to supplement incomes, but collection of caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) has overtaken these activities in recent years.

Yarsagumba, highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine, is used as a performance booster by athletes and is known as ‘Himalayan viagra’ for its supposed aphrodisiacal qualities. A parasite on ghost moth larvae, yarsagumba fetches over US$ 100,000 per kilogram, making it the world’s most expensive biological commodity with a global market worth US$ 5–11 billion annually.

In a study of six villages in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, Chandra Kuniyal, lead author and scientist at the Herbal Research and Development Institute, Gopeshwar, found that caterpillar fungus collection has shifted activity away from rare medicinal plants, thus supporting their recovery.

Kuniyal’s paper suggests that dwindling fungus resources could mean "villagers will deviate from this short seasonal activity and return to collecting globally significant medicinal plants, timber trading and animal poaching."

 

Kuniyal suggests adopting a rotational approach to collecting the fungus as a conservation step.

Sangay Wangchuk, head of the sustainable forestry department at the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment in Bhutan, says there are limits to conservation efforts as people in the alpine areas of his country still collect both medicinal herbs and the fungus.

"Destruction of medicinal herbs may increase with the influx of huge numbers of Cordyceps collectors," Wangchuk told SciDev.Net.

Kuniyal’s paper adds to concerns raised in a separate report to be published next month (March 2013) in Biological Conservation on the possible impact of declining yarsagumba yields on local livelihoods.

The Biological Conservation report is the first study to quantify the status of yarsagumba in Nepal, with researchers documenting declines in exports and average daily collection.

Till now, rising prices have compensated for declining harvests, says lead author Uttam Babu Shrestha at the University of Massachusetts, Boston but, with over 60,000 people in the studied  district of Dolpa alone directly involved in the trade, the findings have serious implications.

"For about 10–15 per cent of the households we surveyed, this is the only source of cash income," said Shresta. "And for more than 50 per cent of households, more than half of their total income comes from caterpillar harvesting."

Link to abstract in Ecosystem Services:

Link to abstract in Biological Conservation:

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