At the rate the yarsa is being harvested, it could become extinct in the near future.
On the slopes of Mt Saipal, Nepal’s western most Himalayan peak, 14-year-old Ramita Bohara is scouring the meadows at 4,200 m looking for yarsagumba.
Bajhang villagers looking for yarsagumba on the slopes of Mt. Saipal in northwestern Nepal at 4200m.
The fungus that grows on an underground caterpillar has a tell-tale little spike coming out of the grass, and it takes an expert to spot it. Ramita is getting pretty good at finding them, and this season picked 35 yarsa from which she earned 17,500 – enough to pay her school fees back home in Bajhang’s Rilu village. “If I find more, I will buy a set of clothes for my mother,” Ramita says.
Although it is a fortune for the subsistence farmers of northwestern Nepal
, the same yarsa will fetch up to 20 times the price by the time it is sold on a street-front store in Shanghai as a ‘Himalayan viagra’ potion.
Every spring the villages of northwestern Nepal empty as more than 150,000 villagers head off to the high slopes in search of this cash crop. Last month, 25,000 people from Darchula, 30,000 from Bajhang, 43,000 from Dolpa and 20,000 from Mugu were involved in yarsa harvesting. In Dolpo, two people were killed when police intervened to settle a dispute between locals and yarsa pickers.
From these four districts alone, the state earned Rs 15.6 million in tax revenue, and farmers are estimated to have earned Rs 2.9 billion. That is just through official channels, and represents only half the total yarsa smuggled directly to China. The bonanza has lifted living standards in Nepal’s poorest and remotest districts.
However, over-harvesting and improper picking has meant that yarsa pickings this year were slim in some areas. While some people carefully pick the yarsa out of the ground, others scoop them out with gardening hoes which destroys the next year’s crop. Experts say training on sustainable harvesting and storing techniques are needed in the yarsa camps.
Says Bajhang District Forest Officer, Ramesh Chand: “At the rate the yarsa is being harvested, it is just not sustainable, the caterpillar could become extinct in the near future.”
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