Alpine areas of Bhutan now has about 4000 seasonal visitors thronged to collect cordyceps – the highly priced medicinal fungi.
Ophiocordyceps sinensis is the name by which it is known in the scientific community but commonly known as cordyceps; and or Chinese caterpillar. In Bhutan it is called by the name Yar-tsa Gun-bub (summer grass and winter worm) or just bub (worm). Owing to its market value, every year close to 4000 Bhutanese comb the alpine pastures of the country hunting for it. Since only about 10% of it will be out of the ground, collectors have to be on their knees, crawling, trying to spot it as they are well camouflaged in the midst of dried grasses and herbaceous twigs. For an un-trained eye, everything brown would either look like cordyceps or everything brown might look like dried twigs.
While collection and sale of cordyceps brought in many benefits to improve the economic livelihood of the collectors, it also brought about some changes to the alpine ecosystem of the country. Since, it is found above 4000 meters of elevation in Bhutan, the area is devoid of any woody vegetation except for few species of rhododendrons; junipers and willows. Cordyceps collectors in Bhutan generally establishes their campsites in places where woody vegetation are available as they burn wood for heating and cooking. Royal Government of Bhutan’s policy to encourage collectors to carry alternative fuels (kerosene or cooking gas) has not worked for a reason. How on earth can we expect the collectors to carry fuels to last for a month when they are already carrying food supplies to last for the whole collection season. Having said that, last remaining woody vegetation in Bhutan’s alpine areas are always under tremendous pressure and it isn’t far when all the woody vegetation near 4000 meters above sea level will become a history. In one of the studies, I pursued, I found that just to accumulate the base diameter of about 8 cm, a species of rhododendron took about 169 years. Since harvesting of it is way more than biomass accumulation, woody vegetation at such an elevation will be gone, should same consumption trend of wood continues.
If wood was the only problem, it would have been great! However, there is another mounting problem – TRASH. I still can’t understand Bhutanese mentality towards trash. We have become so careless that we find it easier to throw trash outside our car window than keeping it in the car to have it disposed later. When the city dweller Bhutanese can’t dispose one’s trash properly, we can’t expect it from people spending months in alpine meadows of the country carrying their food items and in harsh environment. However, there is a positive twist – Department of Forests and Park Services initiated a process called “garbage in and garbage out” policy. This policy mandates all the collectors to declare their possible trash generation sources before heading out to collection ground and have it checked upon their return after the completion of legal duration for cordyceps collection. I’m not sure how successful this initiative is turning out to be as I couldn’t grab an opportunity to visit the cordyceps collection ground since its implementation sometime in 2011 (I’m not sure of the year).
The Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research initiated massive campaign on the same subject to the cordyceps collectors within Wangchuck Centennial National Park (WCNP). In 2016, a team from the institute visited cordyceps collectors from Bumthang and conducted awareness campaign on cordyceps lifecycle; importance of trash management and importance of sustainably harvesting fuelwood. This year, the same team from the institute will be heading towards the collection areas within Wangdue districts, which are within the administrative boundary of WCNP.
While acknowledging the huge contribution of cordyceps towards the socio-economic development of Bhutanese collecting it, we should also be wary of the environmental trade-offs. Beyond doubt, resources must be extracted to reap benefits but efforts should also be made to reduce our negative foot prints. Advocacy should surround around making people realize that alpine environment is not there to stay the same forever if timely interventions and care are not undertaken to minimize destruction, and this statement should be followed by interconnected world to emphasize on not having habitat for cordyceps to thrive.
Our efforts should converge towards harvesting natural resources in a sustainable manner with minimum destruction to its habitat.