Collectors blame over harvesting and climate change

 Neten Dorji  | Trashiyangtse

After braving vagaries of the weather for weeks and getting separated from her two children, Cheki returned home from the hills disappointed.  The mother of two from Tarphel village in remote Trashiyangtse went to collect Yartsa Goenbub (Cordyceps Sinensis), but managed only 150 pieces in two weeks.

“It is the worst year since the collection of the fungus was legalised in 2004,” said Cheki. Just last year, Cheki collected almost three times the amount in the same period of time. Cheki was better. Some came home empty handed.

Domang Tshering, 38, who has been collecting the fungus for more than 17 years, said finding 15 to 20 pieces a day should be considered lucky today. He claims that he used to collect 3,000 to 4,000 a day more than a decade ago when only seven households had the permit to collect.

Villages like Longkhar and Tarphel had undergone change with the richness brought by the cordyceps business. The change is visible in the newly built houses, cars, smart phones and television sets. What was once a village solely dependent on farming today lives a comfortable life.

However, the source of their wealth at places like Pangdaling and Pheyphunee is disappearing and disappearing fast. There are no cordyceps now, says Jamba from Singphel village. His son went to collect at Pangdaling and came back only with a handful of cordyceps.   

“There are too many people who are collecting it and the number is increasing,” he said.

Villagers agree that cordyceps are not growing anymore or only a few are growing. Some have even stopped collecting. “If the decline continues, we could no longer depend on Cordyceps,” said a collector.

Collectors of Shingphel are quick to claim climate change and an increasing number of collectors for the decline in the fungus and income.

“A combination of climate change and overharvesting could be the reason for the decline,” said a regular collector, Dampa Dorji adding most of the pastures were covered by snow, which melts by early June.

Through experience, collectors know how snowfall pattern is affecting the growth of the fungus. “The changing pattern of snowfall, sometimes no snowfall or sometimes thick snowfall for a short period of time is making it less hospitable for fungus, said Dampa Dorji.

Collectors said that for more than a decade they relied exclusively on income generated from Cordyceps collection and became the most valuable commodity in the remote village.

The increase in collectors is attributed to the increasing population.

Tarphel chiwogs Tshogpa, Tshering Dorji, said the number of houses increased from 60 to 83 within a decade in his chiwog. “A few people have as many as three houses while many own at least two houses registered as new households,” he said.

This some said was because the permit to collect cordyceps is issued to households and not all individuals.

According to statistics with Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary, the highest cordyceps collected and auctioned was 12.5 kg in 2014 followed by 5.84 kg in 2015. In 2016, villagers managed to collect only 1.4kg.

Park Officials said they couldn’t confirm if the decline in cordyceps is because of climate change without scientific study done in the area. “Production fluctuates every year,” said an official. Collectors were made aware of sustainable harvesting. For instance, they are asked to pick only one if they spot two cordyceps. What happens on the ground, with cordyceps becoming expensive, is anybody’s guess.

Recently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed cordyceps Sinensis as “vulnerable” to extinction in its directory of threatened animal and plant species. According to IUCN, overharvesting has slashed populations by at least 30 percent in the last 15 years.

In Trashiyangtse, collection begins from June 24 for a month. However, because of places covered with snow, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest has extended two weeks for collectors.