The names of all persons quoted here, except government officials, have been changed to protect their identities; for the same reason, their villages too have not been named. This is part one of a two-part story.
It’s around five in the evening, and there’s still some light in the sky when 16-year old Vivek Singh Bisht and a few others return to their camp in Satper. “We will be here for another 10 days to find more keeda jadi. This season hasn’t been great for us,” he says, showing me the 26 pieces of fungus he has collected that day.
We are in the Satper meadow, 4,500 metres above sea level, surrounded by snow-wrapped slopes, where some 35 blue tarpaulin tents flap furiously in an icy wind sweeping through the camp. The tents shelter fungus-hunters like Vivek from various villages, who start gathering here from mid-May. Satper is in Dharchula block of Pithoragarh district, a few kilometres west of the India-Nepal border.
On good days, a picker here can harvest up to 40 pieces; on bad days, just about 10. By the time the monsoon starts in Uttarakhand around mid-June, the lucrative keeda jadi harvesting season is almost over. Last year, by June, Vivek’s parents, grandparents and eight-year-old sister returned to their village with 900 pieces. Each keeda jadi weighs less than half a gram and the family will sell it for Rs. 150-200 per piece.
Harvesting keeda jadi or the ‘caterpillar fungus’ has turned around fortunes over the last decade (more on this in the part two of this story) for many poor families in the villages of the Tibetan Plateau in Nepal and India – especially in the high-altitude border districts of Pithoragarh and Chamoli. Before the fungus-hunting work grew, the villagers mainly depended on subsistence agriculture and daily wage labour. Now each kilogram of the fungus sells for anything between Rs. 50,000 to as much as Rs. 12 lakhs, depending on the quality and size. Even the low-end price covers a large portion of the village families’ income for months.
Indian or Nepali agents sell the bulk of the produce to buyers and consumers in China. They use far-flung mountain routes to smuggle the keeda jadi across the border to Nepal and China to evade being caught by the state police or by forest and revenue department officials in Uttarakhand.
The scientific name of the fungus, also known as cordyceps mushroom, is ophiocordyceps sinensis. It is called the ‘caterpillar fungus’ because it parasitically grows in the larva of the ‘ghost moth’ caterpillar. It kills and mummifies its host, covering it in a yellow-brown sheath. Then, just before winter sets in and the soil freezes, a small bud forms and pushes out of the caterpillar's head. In spring – when the snow starts to melt in May – a mushroom-like brownish fruiting body shoots above the soil.
This is the keeda jadi – roughly, ‘worm grass’ – in Uttarakhand, yarsagumba in neighbouring Tibet and Nepal, and dong chong xia cao in China. The Chinese as well as Tibetan-Nepali names broadly translate to ‘winter worm summer grass’.
The high price of the fungus comes from its supposed aphrodisiacal properties, for which it is known as the ‘Himalayan Viagra’. It is also a valued ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. The demand for yarsagumba reportedly shot up in 1993 when three Chinese athletes broke five world records at the Beijing National Games after regularly consuming a tonic apparently made from the fungus.
Around a decade later, the fungus-picking made its way to India. “In the [early] 2000s, we saw Tibetan khampas searching for the fungus in pastures on the Indian side. They said it could rarely be found in Tibetan territory any more. They searched unexplored Indian territory and asked us to help them,” says Krishna Singh. The market price at the time for the keeda jadi was modest. But by around 2007, the trade became lucrative, attracting many more harvesters.
“Right now, whatever is going on – picking, buying, selling – is completely illegal,” says Ranjan Mishra, the chief conservator of forest, Uttarakhand. “So we never really know the price of keeda jadi even in the Indian market.”
In 2002, to try and regulate the then still-incipient illegal trade, the Uttarakhand government authorised van panchayats – forest councils managed by village communities – to grant fungus-picking licenses to local residents, but only within the range of the panchayats. It remains illegal for such license-holders to sell the fungus to anyone other than van panchayats. In 2005, the state government further fine-tuned this policy – on paper. But only a few van panchayats have jurisdiction in the alpine meadows. And no one – neither the villagers not the panchayat members – followed the policy.
Such arrests though are rare. "It’s not
possible to nab the culprits because they use remote areas to smuggle the fungus,”
the former superintendent of police, Pithoragarh , Ajay Joshi, says. “In the
last one year, we have not made any arrest for keeda jadi.”
Jurisdiction is another grey area – between the police and the forest and revenue departments. “Most of the area comes under the revenue department, which deals with cases of illegal keeda jadi along with the forest department," Joshi says.
But R.K. Pandey, the sub-divisional magistrate of Dharchula, says, "It has to be a joint operation of the police, forest and revenue department. The revenue department alone can't seize keeda jadi. We have not made any seizures in one year."
When the police or other officials do seize any keeda jadi – carefully wrapped and packed by villagers in airtight jars to preserve it – they open it for checking. Since it is a rapidly perishable fungus, there are two ways for the police to handle it – give it to the forest department for an auction or to the AYUSH (indigenous medicine) department in Dehradun or at a district centre of the department. This rarely happens, and the fungus perishes.
In 2017, the Chamoli police gave two kilos of keeda jadi to the Badrinath forest division. But the fungus could not be auctioned because by then it had already perished, the office of the Badrinath divisional forest officer told me.
The high price of the fungus comes from its supposed aphrodisiacal properties.... It is also a valued ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine
Meanwhile, for the villagers, fungus-hunting outstrips any other work in the months of May-June. “People with government jobs take ‘medical leave’ for a month and join their families in the hunt,” says Raju Singh. “If there are more family members, more pieces of keeda jadi can be collected. More keeda jadi means more income.” Only the old and the sick, who can’t make the steep climb and handle the harsh weather conditions, remain at home.
As soon as children turn six or seven years old, and can manage in the extreme cold and harsh terrain of alpine meadows, they too join the fungus hunts and become the highest harvesters. “We have better eyesight than the adults. In a day we can locate and gather about 40 pieces, while adults spot a lot fewer; some days they find nothing at all,” says 16-year-old Vivek, with confidence.
Schools usually remain closed in Uttarakhand for much of May, so children are free to trek with their families to the Himalayan meadows. Vivek has been coming to Satper for nine years, since he was seven, but his schooling has not been affected. He recently passed his Class 10 exams, scoring 82 per cent. And plans to wait till his Class 12 results before deciding his future course of action.
“Everyone in the family joins the hunt. Even if they can’t crawl and pick, they can cook and gather water for the rest of the family. The nine villages in the Satper area empty out in May. Entire families move to bugyals [alpine meadows] during keeda jadi season,” says Raju, who is from the same village as Vivek.
Access to keeda jadi territory is strictly monitored by the villagers living in the foothills – they keep an eye on who enters and exits their villages and nearby areas. Outsiders are not allowed to pick the fungus in ‘their territory’, though the villagers occasionally allow researchers from the outside. I am only allowed in because I have a letter from the district magistrate of Pithoragarh – which he gave me as a reporter, directing officials and others to allow me into their areas (often in sensitive border zones) and provide help when needed.
I travelled across a mule route with my guide (who too cannot be named) to reach the camp, trudging across 25 kilometres for over 12 hours through steep terrain. Villagers start preparing for the fungus hunting season by using mules on this route to carry provisions to the meadow. “We begin dropping rations at Satper – around 25 kilos of rice, 10 kilos dal, onions, garlic and spices – on our mules in April,” says Raju.This path cuts across dense forests and swift mountain streams, in an area known for its leopards and bears. Villagers arm themselves with rudimentary knives and sticks to ward off animal attacks on their treks to the camp.
But the journey is not the only danger they face. Collecting caterpillar fungus is hazardous and involves labouring on narrow and steep mountain passes in the bitter cold. It requires crawling on your stomach on the grassland, combing the land in front of you, with elbows and knees dug into the snow. Joint pains, snow blindness and breathing problems are common complaints after the villagers return home.
In 2017, two people fell off the cliff and died while hunting for the fungus in another alpine meadow in Pithoragarh, around 35 kilometres from Satper. In April 2018, another person was reportedly killed after he fell off a cliffside while transporting rations for the keeda jadi season. But death and hardships don’t deter the villagers when the financial rewards of the fungus are so high.