SIKKIM NEWS: Five-hour street chase busts desire herbs racket – state monopoly to rule Yarshagumba prices, no free markets, criminality being encouraged and villagers to turn into criminals too ?!!
FROM THE TELEGRAPH CORRESPONDENT
Gangtok, July 23: Five persons were arrested after a five-hour chase that ended with the smugglers trying to sell around 2kg of cater pillar fungus, known for its aphrodisiac properties, to a decoy.
The decoy used by Gangtok police had struck a deal of Rs 2.7 lakh per kg with the smugglers of Himalayan herb. When the deal was through, a police team led by inspector Tshering Sherpa struck, rounding up the gang at 12.30pm from near the circuit house here.
To throw the police off their scent, the gang had changed position thrice from 8am before agreeing to meet the decoy. From MG Marg to Namnang to the gate of Tashi Namgyal Academy, the gang flitted in and out. Finally, they met the police decoy in front of the circuit house more than four hours later.
“The total weight of the medicinal herbs was 2.10kg,” said Sherpa. “The police had been tipped off about the peddlers.”
Caterpillar fungus or yartcha gombu (not yarshagumba ?!!) — scientific name Cordyceps Sinensis — is half-insect (see chart – where ?!!). Although its medicinal properties are yet to be scientifically substantiated, it is famous in the Himalayan belt including Nepal and Bhutan for its aphrodisiac properties. Often, it is known as the Himalayan Viagra.
The consignment had been brought from high altitude regions — 8,000ft and above — of Lachung in North Sikkim. It is also found in East district. A taxi used by the group to ferry the consignment has also been seized.
“We will hand over the consignment and the arrested persons to the wildlife authorities, who will take up the case,” Sherpa said.
The chief wildlife warden of the state, N.T. Bhutia, said the department would register cases against Bhim Bahadur Rai, 20, Pawan Pradhan, 34, Bikash Gurung, 27, Suk Bahadur Subba, 26, and Nar Bahadur Gurung, 47, under the wildlife protection and forest conservation acts.
Under the acts, collection of forest produce from reserve forests, sanctuaries and national parks without prior permission is illegal and attracts penalties of fines and imprisonment depending on the degree of the crime.
Till a couple of years ago, a kg of caterpillar fungus used to fetch as much as $2,000 but its price has come down to $1,500 in recent times, a forest officer said.
Regulated collection and trading of yartcha gombu is allowed in Nepal and Bhutan. Realising that its bio revenue source has been lying untapped, the Sikkim government had in July last year framed rules for sustainable collection and trading of the herb.
Only registered joint forest management committees and eco development committees are allowed to collect the medicinal herbs after permission from the range officer. The permission is given after field verification and approval by the principal chief conservator of forests. Finally, the collection is monitored by a forester not below the rank of block officer.
However, no collection is permitted in the wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. This May, the herb-growing areas were supposed to be surveyed, but the study could not be carried out because of opposition from villagers.
After collection, the herb was to be auctioned by a committee set up by the state government. Of the proceeds, 75 per cent would have remained with the forest management committees who collected the herb. The rest would have been deposited with the government. A forester said the villagers’ objection stemmed from the fact that the government’s rate was low. “If they sold it outside, they will profit more,” said the forester.
MEANWHILE – THE NEPAL EXPERIENCE
Yarshagumba: protecting a potent trade – something for Sikkim to learn ?!!
FROM NEW AGRICULTURIST
Date published: September 2007
Unsustainable harvesting frequently threatens non-timber forest product (NTFP) enterprises. But in Nepal, despite government intervention, increasing demand for yarshagumba, a rare and unique fungal herb, is threatening forests high in the steep, remote valleys of the Himalayas.
In May this year (2007), 16 harvesters were reported killed in heavy snow storms in the Dolpa district of western Nepal, although local reports claimed that fatalities were much higher. Each year thousands of Nepali villagers trek to Dolpa’s high pastures, hoping to share in the harvest of this lucrative commodity, and the bodies buried in the snow were the latest victims to succumb to the potent lure of the yarshagumba trade.
Regulation and royalties
Yarshagumba has been collected by communities for centuries but a ‘gold rush’ was first triggered in the spring of 2002 when people from neighbouring districts began to risk their lives by camping on the mountain slopes. Until 2001, collection of the fungus had been illegal but in response to its rising popularity and lobbying from various organisations, the government attempted to regulate the industry by lifting the ban and imposing a substantial tax, or “royalty fee”, of 20,000 Nepali Rupees (Rs) (US$280) per kilogram collected.
At the same time the trade was legalised, the market price of yarshagumba soared to over NR100,000 per kilo (US$1560), leading to thousands of hopeful harvesters heading to the hills in 2002. However, enforcement of the royalty fee proved ineffective as much of the trade went unreported. The market price of the fungus currently stands at between US$3,000 per kg for the lowest quality to over US$15,000 for the biggest, highest quality larvae.
Community takes control
For Nepali communities in Dolpa, the yarshagumba trade has always been a vital source of income. Local authorities say schools and offices frequently close down during the picking season as children help their parents collect the fungus. But the increasing trade and influx of outsiders is putting local villagers’ livelihoods and their forests at risk. In 2006, it was reported that over 30,000 harvesters had gathered in Dolpa’s forests.
To protect their livelihoods and the delicate mountain habitat, local communities in Dolpa have sought to find their own solution to regulating the yarshagumba trade. Community forest user groups (FUGs) are found throughout Nepal, but many in Dolpa had ceased to function while others made no provision for NTFPs in their management plans. With support from the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB), a Kathmandu-based NGO, which had lobbied the government over the excessive yarshagumba royalty fee, three FUGs are now meeting regularly, having revised their constitutions and management. The harvesting areas have been surveyed and district authorities have officially handed over management of these to the groups.
Metamorphosis of yarshagumba trade
The FUGs are now responsible for collecting entry charges from harvesters (NRs. 100 per collector) and a further conservation charge (NRs. 5,000 per kg) is levied. In the first year alone, the groups collected over NR800,000 (US$12,500). Following initial difficulties in collecting the charges, the FUGs set up four teams of younger group members to guard the entry points to the harvesting areas and enforce the fees. The fee income has been used to develop a micro-hydropower plant, benefiting all three FUGs.
There are still a number of challenges which need to be addressed. However, the intervention of ANSAB and commitment of FUGs has proved a viable and profitable alternative to the shortcomings of government regulation of yarshagumba collection in Nepal. ANSAB is now calling for more FUGs to become involved in forest management schemes to protect the communities they represent and the forests they depend on.
Yarshagumba: the caterpillar fungus
Nicknamed the “Himalayan Viagra”, yarshagumba (Cordyceps sinensis) is a rare species of parasitic fungus from the highlands of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. In Nepal it is found at altitudes above 4000m in the Karnali region and western Himalayas, with more than 50 per cent coming from the Dolpa district.
All Cordyceps species are parasitic, mainly on insects and other arthropods. C. sinensis is the best known as it has long been a highly-prized ingredient in Chinese medicine, used as an aphrodisiac and treatment for a wide variety of ailments from fatigue to cancer. Demand for the fungus is highest in China, Thailand, Korea and Japan.
The fungus grows on Thitarodes caterpillar larvae that feed underground on the roots of trees and shrubs on the slopes of the Himalayas. Once infected, the body cavity of the larva fills with fungal mycelia, killing the host. A finger-like ‘mushroom’ grows out from the larval head above the ground during the spring and summer; the entire fungus-caterpillar organism is hand-collected during this time.