What is Yarsagumba?
Yarsagumba is a unique fungus which grows on caterpillar. It is found in the high altitude areas of the Himalayas.
It is a parasitic relation of a fungus which grows on the larvae stage of many species of moth caterpillar.
Yarsagumba takes the nutrients for its own growth from caterpillar. The caterpillar becomes devoid of its nutrients and in the process the caterpillar dies.
This is the reason that Yarsagumba is also called half caterpillar half fungus. In scientific terms it is known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis.
Its unique life-cycle brought it names Yarchagumba, Yatsa gunbu, Yartsa gunba, Yatsagumbu and keeda jadi. In Tibet ‘Yatsa gunbu’ means ‘Summer grass winter worm‘.
The caterpillar fungus is also called Himalayan Viagra.
Where is Yarsagumba found?
Yarsagumba is found in high altitude Himalayas of India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.
HowYarsagumba or Keeda Jadi Grows?
The caterpillar larvae grow in the soil of sub alpine high pastures present between 3,200 to 4,000 meters altitudes during summer. Before monsoon sets in the parasitic spores of the fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) get settled on the head of the caterpillar. They derive the energy from the caterpillar and grow. This leads to ultimate death of the caterpillar. In winter season the fungus mushroom starts coming up from the larva head. The length of the fungus coming out from the dead caterpillar is app 5-7 cm. Before monsoon rains typically during early spring in the month of March-May they are harvested.
Yarsagumba Uses and Benefits
Yarsagumba is used in the preparation of traditional medicines. Its description is present in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medical literature.
It is consumed as tonic to gain energy and vitality. It is said to be an immune booster, strengthens kidney and lung, useful for treatment of asthama, bile diseases and cancer. It is also said to be effective in reducing cholesterol, and in the treatment of headache and toothache.
The most important reason behind its popularity is its aphrodisiac properties because of which it is also known as Himalayan Viagra.
Many high altitude villages are dependent on it for livelihood. It’s price is comparable to gold.
Because of its high price it is over exploited now. Its secret trading and unrest among its custodian societies have also brought it under limelight.
Yarsagumba Price/ Kg
The most popular destination for selling Yarsagumba is China. A middle man can get its price as high as $100 (~Rs.6,600) for a gram of fungus in Shanghai, $45 (~Rs. 3000) in Kathmandu while paying $18 per gram (~Rs 1190) to the local harvester in a village for example Siwang. Each fungal dried specimen weighs less than 1/2 g.
In terms of Price/ Kilogram, Yarsagumba can fetch $ 18000/Kg (11.90,000 Rs/ Kg) to a local harvester and amount as high as $ 100,000/ Kg (66,00,000 Rs/Kg) to a middleman in China.
Trade of caterpillar fungus was made legal in Nepal in 2001. Since legalization its market price hiked up to 2300% in 10 years. According to a research by Shreshtha and Bawa (2013) published in a journal ‘Biological Conservation’ the amount of trade volume of Yarsagumba reached peak in 2009 with 2442 kg reportedly traded in that particular year. The trade volume has been declining since than reaching to 1170 kg in 2011.
Same publication reported the decline of average harvest as well. According to the estimates it was 260.66 piece per person in 2006 declined up to 125.82 pieces per person in 2010.
This biological gold has given birth to the gold rush mentality in the higher Himalayan areas where very few economic opportunities exist.
Considered as the costliest bioresource on earth at present, Yarsagumba is lifting the living standards of its harvester societies. According to Nepal Rastra Bank’s recently released report published in the Himalayan Times a rural family can earn uoto Rs 600,000 in the harvesting months which is eight times more than the per-capita income of Nepal.
Similar reports have also been coming from Central Indian Himalayan State of Uttarakhand where it is known as Keera Jadi and is forcing youngsters to move towards higher altitudes in the search of it against the trend of out migration towards the nearby plain areas for livelihood.
The unsustainable harvesting has lead to the steep decline in the production of Yarsagumba in recent years.
Yarsagumba in News
In May this year (2016) Nepal Mountains News reported the decline in the Yarsagumba production in Nepal. The locals blame the increasing littering in the higher Himalayas such as plastics left there behind the decline in the production of caterpillar fungus. Climate changes are also being blamed for this.
The Tribune reported (4 June 2009) 30-50% average decline in the Yarsagumba Production in the meadows of Chiplakot hills of Munsiyari-Dharchula subdivisions of Pitthoragarh, Uttarakhand. The report blamed over exploitation for hindering regeneration potential of Yarsagumba. The villagers of the area migrate to higher altitude in search of it and this was reported to have affected the potato and rajma (Kidney beans) crops. Potato and Rajma are the main cash yielding crops in the area. It is also reported to be adversely affecting the livestock which are left unattended in that duration.
BBC Kathmandu described caterpillar fungus a curse for the other wise very peaceful Himalayan Annapurna range. Yarsagumba is reported to be behind the increasing crimes and murders in the region.