This year, for over a period of two weeks in May/June, Fangu in Lunana gewog will host about 500 Lunaps representing all 190 households of the gewog. This is special as it comes only once in five years and no one needs to be reminded or invited to be part of it. Everyone comes here on their own will, so much so that they have to worry to stop the uninvited gatecrashers from the neighbouring gewogs. Because of the large size of the congregation, the event could be aptly labeled as “festival”. And harvesting of the Cordyceps sinensis or the miracle fungus is the main attraction of this festival.
The festival will be, however, of a different genre where the festivalgoers will be put to test their level of endurance to hardship under the harshest climatic and living conditions. “Survival of the fittest” will be at play. At an altitude above the tree line, the weather is almost always wet and cold with thin air. High altitude sickness can be a real danger. Good night sleep will be seldom if not never for both who has the cover of makeshift tents and those who have nothing but the bare sky over their heads. No commensurate supply of calories to the increased calories requirement as the food supplies will be bare minimum.
They will be almost always crawling on wet grounds fishing for the fungus, which is not only very small but also cunningly camouflaged. It will be like trying to find a needle in a heap of hay. Sharp eyes will be an advantage but not a guarantee to good harvest. The amount of harvest greatly depends on luck or chance factor. So depending on the combination of sharpness of vision, strength and stamina, and luck or chance, one can harvest nothing to a maximum of 300 pieces a day.
The month-long hardship is, however, adequately compensated with bountiful reward of couple of thousand by every household. Knowing the above fierce facts of adversities, I hope the general belief of highlander making easy money from fungus will be cast-off as false. In fact, even lives are at stake during the harvest.
Where is Fangu?
Fangu, meaning pig’s head, is located above 5,000masl at the base of the Gangchen Singye (Table mountain) range which extends to Bumthang featuring high peaks like the Gangkarpunsum and many others. Fangu is also opposite Lugge Tsho, which in 1994 caused one of the biggest glacial lake outburst floods in Bhutan.
Fangu is about five hours walk from Thanza the northern most settlement in Lunana.
Gasa is the only dzongkhag where all its gewogs get the opportunity to collect Cordyceps. Fangu has the reputation of producing the best quality in the country. Therefore, given the chance, anyone would be interested to join the festival at Fangu. However, non-Lunaps are not welcomed and this is supported with the agreed boundary for each gewog for fungus collection.
Who are the Collectors?
Except two households that have only members too old to be able to harvest, all other households are expected to participate with a maximum of three. Lunaps say that the best collectors are those in ages ranging from 16 to 30 years. The oldest collector could be 60 years and the youngest eight years old. Though the rule specifies 16 years as the minimum age to be eligible for collection, there have been cases of children not meeting the minimum age also participating in the harvest. Infact, this is the main reason for causing dropout from schools in Lunana and Laya.
Though chance and luck could be the biggest factor, good stamina, strength, speed and sharpness of vision are advantages for more harvest.
Known as Yartsa Goenboob, local people just call it boob, meaning insect.
Yartsa Goenboob is a caterpillar fungus scientifically known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis. It is yet to be domesticated.
According to Lunaps, this miracle fungus has 5-year production cycle, meaning the fungus will grow in the same habitat only after a gap of three years. While Fangu area is the most sought after for the best quality and also quantity, adjacent areas like Nadagentsa, Tshokeyna, and Gangjeyphu are also supposed to be in production this year.
The Lunaps have an arrangement for harvesting. For the first 15 days all Lunaps will harvest in Fangu area. In the next 15 days, the Lunaps from the villages of Ramina, Lhedi, Wachey, Rilo, and Thanza will continue in Fangu. Those from villages of Tshojong move to Ganjeyphu and those from Toenchoe and Dota to Tshokeyna and Nadagentsa.
This fungus is popularly known as Himalayan viagra due to its aphrodisiac effects. It is also known to increase immune system, have anti-aging effects, improve stamina and athletic performance, fight diabetes, improve liver function and detoxification and fight respiratory infections.
The fungus is also known as golden fungus simply because it is as valuable as gold. The world average price for the best quality would be around USD 35,000 per kilogramme with possibility of going as high as USD 50,000 per kilogramme. The highest price in Bhutan so far was recorded at around USD 42,000 per kilogramme in Bumthang in 2017 annual auction. A kilogramme of the best quality fungus would have about 2,500 pieces, while the lowest quality would have about 7,000 pieces.
About 500 collectors are expected to participate in fungus harvest. A total of 500kg is expected to be harvested.
An equal amount is suspected to be collected and traded informally and illegally. This translates to an estimated revenue loss of about Nu 4 million from royalty evasion from Lunana gewog alone.
It was only after the Royal decree in 2004 the Lunaps with other highlander were allowed to harvest and market the otherwise protected species. Since then, the socioeconomic impact on Lunaps, fuelled by the incomes from fungus, has been enormous.
Except for a few, most household on an average make an income of a minimum of Nu 100,000 every year from sale of the fungus.
About five percent Lunaps make millions from fungus, own properties in Punakha, own large numbers of yaks and horses and good bank balance.
Only about 20 percent of fungus is traded. The remaining 80 percent gets withdrawn from the auction and is traded directly with the buyers. Some bigger buyers also depute their agents to buy the fungus at source.
Five years ago, the situation arising from not honoring boundary rule turned ugly, leaving the Lunaps disgruntled. Lunap Fangutashi (name changed) believes that in 2014, they had about 700 trespassers collecting fungus in their area. There were about 500 Lunaps. He believes that Lunaps lost about 50 percent of their fungus to the uninvited guests from the neighbouring gewogs.
Later that year, coordination meeting was convened in Wangdue, chaired by the home minister. The main outcome of the meeting was the agreement on demarcation and definition of the boundary between the gewogs of Wangdue and Lunana for fungus collection.
Rinchenzoe at 5,320masl is the highest pass between Lunana and Sephu. It is two days walk from Thanza and four days walk from Sephu. This pass is the dividing line between Lunana and Sephu for the purpose of fungus collection.
Until 2015, even Lunaps used to harvest fungus from Metha Chutha area, which is two hours walk beyond Rinchenzoe towards Sephu.
A meeting to discuss the law enforcement arrangement, especially to keep out the trespasser was held between the gewog and foresters at Park’s office in Punakha on March 29, 2018. From the total of 18, Nadagentsa, Tshokeyna and Gangjeyphu will have five staff each and Fangu will have only three. They will reach the respective locations latest by May 15, 2018. It was also agreed that gewog would provide necessary support for them to be able to do their duty.