Local coverage of Nepal’s ‘Himalayan Viagra’ crop lacks ecological focus, study finds

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  • Yarsa gunbu, better known outside Nepal as Himalayan Viagra, accounts for two-fifths of the country’s non-timber exports.
  • Every year, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese head to the hilly regions to harvest these fungus-mummified caterpillar larvae from the wild, leaving schools, farms and entire villages deserted.
  • A new study analyzing national media coverage of yarsa gunbu has found that much of the reporting focuses on the scale of the harvest and the exorbitant prices the commodity can fetch.
  • The study authors called on the media to highlight other aspects of the yarsa gunbu trade, including the ecological cost of harvesting and the social cost when schools are without teachers.

KATHMANDU – From March to June every year, the hottest news from some of the hilly regions of Nepal revolves around one theme: yarsa gunbu, also known as yarsagumba or caterpillar mushroom, and featured around the world under the name Viagra Himalaya.

During peak season, settlements turn into ghost towns as residents young and old move to higher ground in search of the precious Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Considered a powerful tonic in traditional Chinese medicine, yarsa gunbu can sometimes fetch a higher price per gram than gold.

The Nepalese media covers issues related to mushroom harvesting closely. And, according to a recent study of how Nepalese media portray the yarsa gunbu, stories about the potential impacts of climate change on the fungus are also gaining traction: “Non-seasonal spring blizzards due to climate change could also affect the cycle life of the fungus. fungus, which is sensitive to the duration and extent of snowfall,” reads one report.

“We can see that issues related to yarsa gunbu are widely covered by the media in Nepal,” says Sanjeev Poudel, a researcher at the Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Kathmandu and lead author of a recent study on media coverage of the species.

But the media also fails to cover issues related to policy gaps and challenges related to the species, listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable to extinction.

“They tend to focus on resource conflict issues and publish editorials on this species to show its importance,” says Poudel.

Poudel and his team also found that outside of harvest season, the media tends to ignore the caterpillar fungus.

During the high season, people from some of the hilly regions of Nepal move to higher grounds in search of the precious Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Photo by Manu Moudgil.

A crucial harvest

Yarsa gunbu, a dark brown rod-like fruiting body is usually a few centimeters long. It forms after the fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis germ in the living larva of the caterpillar of the Himalayan bat moth (Hepialus armonicanus), kills and mummifies it.

In an effort to conserve the species, which is found only in the high altitude grasslands of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, the Nepalese government banned the collection and trade of yarsa gunbu in 1995. But in 2001 it lifted the ban on its harvest and sale. , highlighting the importance of the harvest to the local economy. Collectors, who spend months in the high grasslands, pay a fee to municipal governments, for whom the money represents a large part of their annual income. For collectors, the money they earn from sales allows them to buy basic necessities for their families and send their children to school.

“About 41% of the money that Nepal earns from non-timber product exports comes from the export of yarsa gunbu. This shows how important it is for Nepal,” says Uttam Babu Shrestha, co-author of the study also from the World Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, which has conducted extensive research on different aspects of the yarsa gunbu.

“No other resource in Nepal is collected on this scale. Nearly 300,000 people participate in yarsa gunbu collection in Nepal every year,” Shrestha adds.

“Yarsa gunbu has become a global staple these days as there is a huge global market for it,” says botanist Ram Prasad Chaudhary, professor emeritus at Tribhuvan University, who did not attend the survey. study. “Its importance is growing day by day for Nepal.”

As part of the study, the authors analyzed 3,777 keywords mentioned in 681 news stories in seven national newspapers across Nepal between 2008 and 2021. They categorized the keywords into eight themes to determine how the media reports issues such as conservation, harvesting and gaps. in policy and research on caterpillar fungi.

Yarsa gunbu.
Yarsa gunbu, a dark brown rod-like fruiting body is usually a few centimeters long. It forms after the fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis germinates in the living larva of the caterpillar of the Himalayan bat moth (Hepialus armonicanus), kills it and mummifies it. Image by Nicolas Merky via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE).

The authors found that about a quarter of the keywords in the stories covered could be categorized under the topic of “impacts of yarsa gunbu harvesting”, such as the emptying of villages and schools and the abandonment of farmland as the search for the fungus is in progress.

Trade comes next (15.5%); geographic, economic and scientific information (15.35%); governance, including revenue and collection (14.21%); and harvesting (14.05%). The fewest number of keywords related to themes of challenges faced by fishermen (5.85%); policy gaps, in terms of the effectiveness of policies and their implementation (3.97%); and institutional and responses, which are related to security (3.17%).

“It shows that the coverage is excellent in terms of trade – the media regularly reports the amount of yarsa gumba harvested, bought and sold,” Poudel said. “But it is limited in terms of the government response. For example, when schools are deserted during harvest season, the news stories don’t say much about the kind of policies local education officials need to adopt to help students continue their learning.

Another issue that doesn’t get much attention is the ecological cost of collecting yarsa gunbu, says Shrestha. “We all talk about economic, social and economic transformation, but we don’t talk about costs,” he adds.

Gatherers spend weeks, sometimes even months, in the high grasslands where they cut down trees like silver firs for cooking and warmth, Shrestha says. “On top of that, they’re trampling down pristine grasslands that take a long time to regenerate, especially when the soil is compacted,” he says, adding that there’s also the issue of solid waste management and litter. impact on wildlife.

“Our results suggest that the media did not cover the management agenda of fishermen’s camps, the availability of drinking water and toilets for fishermen,” the study said.

He also found that interest in the caterpillar fungus peaked or waned depending on major harvest season events. For example, in 2014, a harvester was killed by police during a protest in Dolpa district against local rights to revenue from the caterpillar fungus. In 2009, harvesters considered “non-local” were killed in Manang district.

“The media is very good at reporting these stories of conflict and killings,” Poudel says. Stories related to climate change and its impacts, especially as the number of fishermen increases every year, are also gaining traction, he says. The study indicates that the newspaper articles appear to be based on an underlying common belief that caterpillar mushroom production is related to snowfall and precipitation rates before the harvest season.

Weighing of the precious yarsa gunbu in China.
Weighing of the precious yarsa gunbu in China. Image by Mario Biondi via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The researchers did not include international publication coverage in their analysis, but Shrestha says there is also a trend: foreign media tend to present yarsa gunbu as the “Himalayan Viagra” and focus on its massive harvest and the prices it brings.

The main takeaway from the study for the media, both domestic and international, is the need to explore new angles such as taboos related to the yarsa gunbu trade, the intersection with political economy and the ecological costs of the harvest, says Shrestha. Although it is legal to harvest yarsa gunbu in Nepal, people are still arrested for its possession, possibly due to its high market value, he adds.

Ecological costs must also be reported to raise awareness of these issues among the general population. Such reports could prompt the government to implement measures to minimize environmental damage and promote sustainable harvesting, Shrestha says.

“I also think the media should prioritize stories that promote sustainable harvesting of yarsa gunbu,” says Chaudhary. “Also don’t forget local environmental concerns and strike a balance with people’s livelihoods.”

Banner image: A cordycep merchant in Tibet. Yarsa gunbu are only found in the high altitude grasslands of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Image by Rosino via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Quote:

Poudel, S., Shrestha, UB, Pandit, R., & Dhital, KR (2022). Communicating conservation: how does the Nepalese print media present the caterpillar fungus? An analysis of newspaper coverage from 2008 to 2021. Heliyon, 8(9). doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2022.e10439

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Conservation, Endangered, Endangered Species, Environment, Environmental Law, Fungi, Insects, Law, Medicine, Natural Resources, Trade, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Traditional Medicine

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