Is the romance with the Yartsa Goenbub (Cordyceps Sinensis) over? Or is there something brewing in the highly lucrative fungi business? Time will tell.
This year, unlike every year, those who returned from the mountains were left disappointed as there are no or fewer buyers of the newfound wealth.
The first open auction of the year in Paro this week was cancelled. Farmers said they would approach the ministry for intervention. If the next auction were no different from the one in Paro, there would be more than the intervention needed.
The obvious reasons for the poor show in Paro could be the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has hit the global trade. Export and import will take time to reach their peak. Cordyceps are for the export market.
While the volume is low, it goes to international markets in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Some exporters have not heard from their partners abroad .
Cordyceps Sinensis is not a perishable good unlike collectors claim to be. They can be stored and quality maintained if stored the right way. With the pandemic providing a good reason, those in the trade are also becoming suspicious of each other.
For exporters, buying from auctions is cheaper although the quality is an issue. This is not good for collectors who always complain of poor price. In the business, poor prices are usually hundreds of thousands of Ngulturms. Is the pandemic providing an excuse to not buy or sell? Are people trying to cheat each other and the regulations?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently declared that Cordyceps Sinensis is threatened with extinction because of overharvesting. Globally, overharvesting has slashed population by about 30 percent in the last 15 years. Bhutanese collectors are experiencing difficulties finding the fungus. The number of days of returning to camps empty-handed is increasing, according to collectors. Quality is another issue with collectors quick to blame climate change.
This year, there are fewer collectors and less collection although the risk of Covid-19 has discouraged people from venturing into the mountains. The auction season has just begun. While we wait for the next auction at a different place, auctions are not the only place where Yartsa Goenbub is sold and bought.
There are tricks up the gho sleeves. Some collectors refuse to sell at auction blaming poor prices. This is a trick to get to their clients. Those in the business know what quality comes to auctions and what is sold beyond the auctions. Quite often we see people walk out of auctions under the nose of officials. There are middlemen ready to offer better prices. It is said that the quality of the fungus is better at auctions where collectors are not aware of the middlemen or cannot get to them.
Given the IUCN findings and the pandemic hampering export business, it is also time for policy intervention. Stopping collecting for one season may anger highlanders, but not finding the fungus at all would have severe repercussions.
Bhutan is known for our conservation effort. If the fungus is endangered, the collection has to be controlled. We could be the last place on earth to have Yartsa Goenbub (some are trying to grow in labs) grow in its natural state a few years down the line. It would be yet another cap in our conservation efforts.