Ap Chencho, 42, gently opens a small sack made of cloth. A bunch of thin, dusty caterpillars, speckled with white mould and a slender grey tip come into view.
He is one of the farmers from Tsento Gewog at Paro who has come to codyceps auction. Sharing how he and his son crawl on hands and knees to find it, Chencho said the work is hazardous in the high altitude regions where the Yartsa grows, with farmers young and old regularly succumbing to exposure.
After an uphill climb for almost two months, Ap chencho is sad today with the poor quality cordyceps that he and other farmers have collected.
“The demand for the coveted caterpillar fungus is very low this year. Only three buyers have turned up at the Tsento Gewog office in Paro where we auction our cordyceps,” he said.
Another farmer, Namgay said they have been experiencing a huge drop in the availability of the fungus in recent years.
Namgay, who has also collected the fungus for the last eight years, said: “I used to find 50-60 yartsas a day during my earlier years, while now finding four to five per day is a matter of luck.” He said he was afraid his major source of income will not last for long.
Most of the yartsa hunters in Nubri under Tsento Gewog and Chiddue Goenpa under Doteng Gewog in Paro are worried about their seasonal source of income. They could, a decade before, depend almost exclusively on income generated by yartsa collection.
Most of the collectors in hilly areas typically lack academic education and agricultural production from land in these areas is marginal.
According to the list with the gewog, more than 20 buyers were supposed to attend the auction. With the poor turnout of buyers, people are not expecting to get good price like early years.
One of the buyers, who have been involved in the yartsa trade for more than five years in Paro, told Business Bhutan that 70% of cordyceps were sold internationally.
He said the quality is poor while the market and the demand for the caterpillar is very low this year. “With the COVID situation, this is the first time the cordyceps demand in the international market has dropped,” he said.
Meanwhile, farmers are experiencing the effects of climate change and said that untimely and overharvesting were to blame for the drop in quality and quantity of cordyceps. In the future the range of the fungus could be reduced by up to a third because less snow would fall in the pastures and snow would melt earlier in spring.
According to a collector, high mountains are experiencing a more rapid change in temperature than lower elevations. “We have experienced sharp decrease in yartsa availability in recent years and people around us have given up for the next year,” he shared, adding they are able to find only a tenth of what they used to in the past years.
“If the decline happens yearly like this, we can no longer depend on yartsa as our primary source of income,” said one.
Kinley Yonten from Thimphu