By Shristi Kafle/Xinhua/Rukum
In the Pupal valley of upper Rukum, some 700km from the Nepalese capital, it was not a normal weekend for those gathering 4,500m above sea level.
As with every year, thousands of people undertook a treacherous two-day journey from many different districts like Rukum, Dolpa, Baglung, Myagdi and Dolpa to get to Pupal; trekking uphill, some carrying infants to participate in the harvesting of the precious caterpillar fungus known as Yarsagumba in the region.
Laxmi Prasad Pun, president, Pupal Yarsa Festival 2016, said, “People will stay in Pupal for nearly two months to collect the unique hybrid Yarasagumba, which has become a major means of income for thousands of people living in this mountainous region.”
Nearly 100 volunteers and 40 security personnel have been mobilised in the area to curb any looting or illegal trading of Yarsagumba. Last year, 18,000 people had participated in the harvesting in the Pupal area alone, which borders the Dolpa district although has absolutely no transportation or infrastructure.
Ophiocordyceps sinensis, or, as it’s more commonly referred to here, Yarsagumba or Yarsa, is a small, somewhat fragile, mummified body of what is known as the Himalayan bat moth caterpillar, which has been taken over by a parasitic fungus. The species is known throughout Himalayas as a powerful medicine and in some instances is worth more than its weigh in gold. Its stalk-like fruiting body can be found in dizzying heights of up to 5,000m above sea level.
In actuality, it is a finger-shaped caterpillar fungus that sprouts above the soil from 2 to 5cm and is usually golden in colour, soft to the touch and tastes like a milk product.
However in the local language, it is called ‘chyau’ meaning mushroom, ‘kira’ meaning ‘insect’ or yarsa, and is mostly found in Nepal, China, India and Bhutan. Researchers have recently found that this hybrid is also found in some parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well.
This precious biological resource is traded worldwide, especially in neighboring China for medicinal purpose. It is highly-valued for its potential to treat cancer and other diseases related to the lungs, kidney and stomach.
However, not much extensive scientific research has been conducted on the actual medicinal properties of Yarsagumba, and so its restorative potential remains shrouded in folklore and mystery.
Communities in the upper Rukum are solely dependent upon the picking and selling of the precious Yarsagumba for their livelihood. Though the region has immense possibility for agricultural production, locals find Yarsagumba to be the quickest and easiest way to make money.
In recent years, locals have stopped working in traditional agriculture, livestock and weaving clothes and nowadays prefer to keep horses and sheep, along with running seasonal hotels targeting the Yarsa season.
Surabindra Pun, a local of Maikot and a photojournalist, said, “People want to make fast bucks these days. You can see the barren fields everywhere as they don’t want to do hard labour. Instead they only focus on working for two months a year.”
Krishna Bahadur Pun, 55, started running a temporary hotel two years ago during the Yarsa season. He runs a small portable hotel inside a tent in three different locations, Hampa hill, Dule base camp and Pupal valley.
“My family has been running a hotel targeting the Yarsa pickers. We provide local lunch and dinner comprising rice, daal and sheep curry and a home-made drink to the visitors. It is the only season to make money,” Pun said, adding that his wife and two teenage daughters support him in running the business.
Once the Yarsa season that usually runs from mid-May to July is over, his family migrate back to Maikot village.
There was a time when people used to pick 500 and 700 pieces of Yarsagumba every day. Now, it has dropped to between 5 and 15 per day. High demand but less availability has compelled hundreds of people to lose interest in the harvesting of Yarsagumba.
Jogamaya Pun, 40, a local of Maikot village who runs a hotel in the Pupal valley said, “When I was 15, I used to pick more than 500 Yarsa every day. In return, my trader used to provide a wage of Rs80. After a few years, its price gradually increased to Rs2, 5, 25, 50 a piece and so on. The price has gone up but we can hardly find 10 pieces these days.”
Though the pickers claim that Yarsagumba is hard to find in recent years, traders believe that there has been an uptick in harvesting.
“In the past, there were fewer pickers so the availability was high. Nowadays, people don’t see it as a simply a piece of Yarsa, they see it as a 1,000 rupee note which means they are in race to see who can grab the most first. I am worried about the future of Yarsagumba,” Jit Man Pun, a veteran trader, said.
He buys the caterpillar fungus from pickers directly in kilograms and sells them in bulk to traders in Kathmandu and China’s Tibet. According to Pun, over-exploitation of the highland including increasing numbers of people and grazing animals have led to the shrinking numbers of Yarsagumba.
The newly-explored Yarsa trail has been initiated by the local community of Ranmamaikot village development committee, located at upper Rukum, with the 20km trail starting from Maikot, a Magar community and running to the Pupal valley.
Raj Dharma Magar, a local of Maikot, said, “Around 700 locals were mobilised for the construction of the trail and more than Rs20mn was invested by the locals for the trail’s completion.”
Locals claim that this new trail is an adventurous one, but there are security concerns as well. They are hopeful that the trail will be used by the foreign trekkers who travel to neighboring Dolpa and then mountainous districts like Manang and Mustang via the Dhorapatan hunting reserve.
“If we could arrange home-stay facility, then we could easily introduce our isolated village and rich culture to the outer world,” Magar said.
Yarsagumba is the major asset of this region that is traded in the global market, especially in neighboring China, and is worth millions of rupees a year. According to the Rukum district forest office, it collected revenue for 15kg of Yarsagumba last season worth Rs15,000 ($150) per kg.
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