The year that he was in Class 10, Devendra Chulkota made a cool one lakh rupees.

He discovered that there was a booming demand for caterpillar fungus, which was found in abundance in the mountain meadows near his home in Chulkot village, in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district.

The fungus, which sprouts out of the head of a dead caterpillar, and is known locally as keeda jadi, is believed to possess aphrodisiac qualities – some even call it the Himalayan viagra. It is particularly prized in China, where it sells for eye-popping figures: between 1995 and 2015, its market price increased from $13,000 to $20,000 per kilogram. Today, its price can range from $20,000 to $40,000 per kilogram, or between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 30 lakh by current exchange rates.

A study published in 2018 noted, “Considered more valuable than gold, China’s capitalist economy has transformed this traditionally valued medicine into a highly prized Guanxi gift” – referring to a Chinese term for social connections and networks that facilitate business opportunities and deals.

It was a particularly popular gift “for government officials, leaders, or someone generally viewed as superior,” according to the study.

Devendra had an advantage in finding the fungus because he would frequently visit mountain meadows, or bugyals, near his village, which is located in Munsiyari block. “I used to take sheep to the bugyals for grazing, so I knew the places where keeda jadi could be found,” he said.

Once he realised how much money he could earn from the fungus, he dropped out of school. “I had more money than many who had been working for years!”

He was sure that he would be able to earn upwards of Rs 4 lakh a year, a substantial income for a resident of Chulkot.

He was 16 years old then. Now, ten years later, he regrets his decision. “From 2015 onwards, I managed to find fewer and fewer fungus stems,” he said.

The decline continued steadily. “This year I found only 100,” he said. This would fetch him only between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000, and “won’t even take care of the cost of staying in the bugyal for a month,” he added.

In 2021, he began to work as an unpaid assistant to the owner-driver of a taxi. He hopes to one day buy his own taxi. “I never thought that I would have to do something like this when I dropped out of school to devote all my attention to collection,” he said.

Caterpillar fungus is believed to have aphrodisiac qualities, and is a highly valued gift in China. It currently sells for between $20,000 and $40,000 in the international market. Photo: Simon Zo/Reuters

Devendra isn’t the only resident of Chulkot who regrets cutting short his education to chase the riches of the caterpillar fungus. Harish Singh Chulkotiya, too, wishes he had spent less time in the mountain meadows, and instead pursued an undergraduate degree.

The residents of Chulkot call Harish Singh “masterji”, even though he isn’t a teacher. Between 2002 and 2004, he taught Hindi and English alphabet, and basic math to primary school students at a local school. The honorific from that time has stuck.

Harish Singh had done well until then, securing the highest marks in his school in the Class 12 final examinations. That qualification was sufficient to secure him the job at the local school as a “shiksha acharya”, which refers to teachers who are eligible to teach students up to Class 3. He knew that if he wanted to be promoted to teach higher classes as a “shiksha mitra”, he would have to obtain a Bachelor’s degree.

But instead of studying further, from 2001 onwards, every year, he chose to trek 40 km to reach the high altitude bugyals and collect caterpillar fungus for two months. On his return, he would sell the fungus to traders, earning as much as Rs 6 lakh a year.

But then, yields began to fall. “The number of keeda jadi and the price of it has been falling,” he said. “Last year I managed to make only around Rs 60,000-Rs 70,000.”

Around 2006, the school was closed down. Those who had Bachelor’s degrees, including some of Singh’s friends, were given postings as shiksha mitras at other schools. Today, they are paid around Rs 40,000 a month.

Singh was left without a job, and a dwindling income from the caterpillar fungus. “I depend on odd manual labour jobs here in the village and in Munsiyari and then collect the fungus to make ends meet,” he said.

Stories like Devendra’s and Harish Singh’s, of people who sought to make a living off the caterpillar fungus, are not uncommon in Munsiyari, and Pithoragarh district more broadly. The fungus presents a significant opportunity for income in a district where, according to the 2011 Census, as much as 55% of the population were non-workers.

But, like Devendra and Harish Singh, many who bet heavily on the caterpillar fungus now find themselves struggling to make ends meet because of a decline in their collections.

The reduced collections appear to be rooted in ecological changes, I found when I trekked up the mountains of Pithoragarh, on the border with Nepal, in the first week of June. A rush among locals to collect the fungus has resulted in meadows getting depleted of the produce, and the slopes getting denuded of trees. Flaws in Indian forest governance policies that date back to colonial times are exacerbating these changes, causing temperatures in this fragile ecosystem to rise.

A report in The Atlantic also noted the decline of the caterpillar fungus, citing the research of the ecologist Kelly Hopping in Tibet, part of the same geographical zone where the fungus is found. “By interviewing hundreds of collectors, and analyzing the local climate,” the report stated, “ Hopping has conclusively shown what others have suspected: The precious fungus is disappearing, as a result of a double whammy of overharvesting and warming weather. The caterpillar-fungus bubble is ready to burst, and an entire way of life could vanish with it.”

“People don’t realise it but keeda jadi is really bad for us,” said Surendra Panwar, the taxi owner-driver whom Devendra is assisting. “People have left agriculture, people take their children there too, and there are accidents almost every year. It is neither safe nor sustainable in the long run.”

He added, “I went there once and realised it was not worth it.”

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

The caterpillar fungus is found in the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining high-altitude areas of the Central and Eastern Himalayas in Bhutan, Nepal, and the Indian states of Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. In India, the collection of the fungus happens in Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts of Uttarakhand, where it is found in the largest quantities, and also, at a smaller scale, in Sikkim.

The fungus infects certain moths in their larval, or caterpillar, stage. Adult moths lay eggs in grass and other vegetation close to the ground, from which these larvae hatch. Once they hatch, they bore into the ground – healthy larvae stay one or two feet underground till they have metamorphosed into moths. But when larvae are infected, the fungus eats away at their insides – according to researchers, the discomfort and pain causes them to bore upwards towards the ground. By the time a larva reaches the ground, the fungus sprouts from its head and emerges above the surface as a slender, dark stem.

This process occurs in the summer months of May and June, as the Himalayan snow starts to melt, exposing the earth and allowing grasses to emerge. The entire structure of the caterpillar fungus is harvested and used – that is, the skeletal remains of the insect and the fungus stem protruding from it, which looks like a swirly spear. While its most popular use is as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine, it is also believed to have anti-aging properties, as well as to help in combating cancer, and digestive, renal, respiratory and cardiac ailments.

Caterpillar fungus is found in the mountain meadows of the Himalayas. The fungus infects a caterpillar that is underground. It then emerges above ground through the caterpillar’s head. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

The collection of keeda jadi in Pithoragarh started in the mid-1990s whereas in Chamoli, collection began relatively recently. At first, collectors from Dharchula block began to visit Munsiyari to collect the fungus – since that block borders Nepal, they had heard of the demand for the fungus. According to residents of Munsiyari, these collectors did not reveal what they were doing, and how much money could be made.

But locals heard about the fungus from goatherds who frequented the meadows. “A collector from Dharchula told them and they told us and then there was a rush. Many people started going,” said Laxman Mehra, a collector from Munsiyari.

By 2014, one study found, around 81% of the population of Munsiyari was involved in the collection activity – the block saw an annual collection of approximately 88.96 kg of material worth Rs 2.05 crore.

The study found that the annual income fetched by the fungus in Munsiyari block was between US $972 and US $1,485 per collector, or between Rs 76,736 and Rs 1,17,237 at current exchange rates. They typically earn this from two months of work. In comparison, according to one estimate, the average monthly income of rural households is Rs 8,059 per month, or Rs 96,708 annually.

Traveling from Delhi to Munsiyari, my first stop was Pithoragarh town. Everyone I spoke with in the town was convinced that the fungus collection had turned around the economies of the villages in Dharchula and Munsiyari blocks, around 90 km and 120 km away respectively, and that residents there had more wealth than they could manage. Some even pointed to a recent financial scam at a regional post office to drive home the point.

“A clerk in the post office siphoned off Rs 50 lakh, 50 lakh in Munsiyari!” said a particularly animated elderly man in my shared Mahindra Bolero taxi ride from Pithoragarh to Munsiyari. “There are no employment opportunities there, how did people invest so much money? It’s all because of caterpillar fungus collection.”

As it turned out, the driver of the taxi, Mahender, also dabbled in the business – he told me that some 20 days earlier, he had managed to collect around 900 pieces of the fungus and was ready to sell me a few at Rs 500 apiece, and even throw in a few free samples.

“Have it with warm water or milk regularly every night and it will really improve your stamina, be it in the playground or the bedroom. You will come asking for it again, I promise you,” was his sales pitch. Many of his customers must have returned, since Mahender told me that he had bought his taxi with the earnings from the fungus.

But as I got closer to the villages which actually depend on the fungus collection for a livelihood, it became clear that the picture was far less rosy.

In the early hours of June 1, I took a four-hour drive from Munsiyari to Chulkot, from where I was to trek higher up into the bugyal of Halsaun, in the Nagnidhur mountain range. The trail, beaten by years of footfall to the villages higher up, streaked brown through an otherwise green canvas of grass. As we walked, paddy fields gave way to forests of green and red rhododenfron, which were soon replaced by silver oak and pine, with dark brown stems. Then, we reached the bugyal, which was just a vast expanse of lush green, dotted with tiny yellow flowers.

It was a trek of around 30 km, on which I was accompanied by Mehra and Laxman Bisht, another collector of keeda jadi. Locals complete the trek, which starts from an elevation of around 2,000 meters and ends at around 4,500 meters, in around 12 hours – it took me two days.

Laxman Bisht and Laxman Mehra told me that they had only been around in Chulkot to accompany me because untimely snowfall in the higher altitudes had disrupted their collection, forcing them to leave the meadow. “If this was any other year we would still be up there, collecting the jadi,” Bisht told me.

Our trek started on a warm morning. Between our three rucksacks, we divided up supplies to last four or five days – rice, flour, some vegetables, soy chunks, oil and spices, along with cooking utensils, floor mats, a tent, a sickle. We crossed three villages – Bhatkuda, to which both the Laxmans belonged, Badni and Banjkheda. After this, we left behind the step-fields of paddy around the villages, and began a steep climb.

The villagers who make the journey go with the intention of staying in the meadows for almost a month, and sometimes even longer. This requires a substantial upfront investment.

Prem Korunga, who I met on the slopes of Kalibadal, as he was returning from the meadows, told me about the risk of this investment. “I stayed there for a little more than a month,” he said. “Everything from ration to warm clothes and boots cost me around Rs 15,000. I didn’t even get many keeda jadi, just 200.” This would only earn him between Rs 6,000 and Rs 7,000, he added.

Entire families sometimes set off on fungus collecting expeditions, usually for at least a month. They make a substantial investment on the journeys, on expenses such as boots, clothes and food. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

Collectors also forgo other sources of income to go to the meadows. The collection months coincide with the paddy cultivation season. With the high prices that the fungus fetches, many locals prefer collecting it to growing paddy.

A collector from the village of Buen, who met me in the market of Munsiyari, said that much of the land in the village was lying fallow. “Our village is closer to the Ralam glacier and the area we go to collect the jadi has a good yield,” he said. “So, people have mostly left agriculture. I would say in the last 15-20 years, the cultivated area has halved.”

Residents of the region are also abandoning agriculture in favour of fungus collection because of a problem that plagues farming: monkeys. The animals are often captured in Uttarakhand’s urban areas, like Nainital and Dehradun, where they are seen as a menace. They are then released in forested areas, from where they venture out into nearby fields. “They completely destroy the crop and many times they raid the house too,” said Ambika Devi, another collector I met on the trek. Although monkeys – specifically, rhesus macaques – have been notified as vermin in the state, and can therefore be legally killed, locals avoid doing so because they are seen as avatars of the god Hanuman.

But as prices and yields fall, the choice to abandon other work for fungus collection appears far from secure. This pushes people to comb for the fungus in higher, more dangerous terrain.

“Just a couple of weeks back, a man from Chulkot slipped and fell to his death from a chattan,” or a rocky outcrop, Laxman Mehra said. “His body burst open on impact. He was collecting in a very dangerous location, I don’t think even wild animals go there.”

There are several interlinked reasons for the decline in collection and income for caterpillar fungus collectors. A study by Amrita Laha identifies the sharp growth in the number of fungus harvesters as one reason, and as another, a drop in demand from China owing to anti-corruption measures introduced by Xi Jinping in 2013 that banned certain gifts, including caterpillar fungus.

Collectors have also lost income owing to a profusion of middlemen. When the collection started in the mid 1990s, it was largely traders from the Dharchula block who used to visit Munsiyari to buy the fungus. Now there are numerous traders – called thekedar or contractors – from the villages themselves, who constantly seek larger cuts of the sales.

“These contractors want to corner all the money,” said Koranga. “Every year they will say the prices are down because of one reason or the other. We don’t know what the international prices are. Honestly, I don’t even know how to know the international prices, so we have to sell.”

This year, he said, the traders were claiming that China was going to war with Taiwan, and that this was pushing prices down. “Why? What is the logic in that?” said Koranga. Many collectors also complained that the thekedars had not cleared their earlier payments.

Sellers cannot pursue payments legally because the deals with contractors are technically illegal: on paper, only an individual who registers with a village-level forest governance body known as a van panchayat is permitted to collect the fungus. They are then required to deposit their collection with the panchayat, which deposits it with the forest department. The department sells it and pays the van panchayat, which pays the collector a share of the money. But on the ground, most of the collection happens outside this system, to contractors who then typically smuggle the fungus to Nepal, from where it is smuggled to China. “This business works on word of mouth,” Mehra said. “And many times the thekaedar buys the jadi on credit but never pays.”

He said that one thekedar owed him Rs 50,000. “But what can I do? I can’t go to the police, because then they will arrest both me and the thekedar. I don’t think I will ever get that money,” said Mehra.

Because much of the trade is technically illegal, the coming and going of the contractors is a hush-hush affair. Police routinely seize the fungus and imprison contractors.

Despite these risks, many people with whom we crossed paths asked if we had met any contractors. Some even mistook me for a contractor. “Kya rate hai iss bar?” – what are the prices this year, they asked me hopefully, before realising that I was not a contractor.

There are also ecological reasons for the decline in yields. Sachin Bohra, who has done a PhD on the fungus at Pithoragarh University, and gathered environmental data from the collection areas from 2008 to 2019, said that unregulated human activity had changed the area, leading to lower yields.

The bugyals, which once did not see many human visitors, apart from a few sheep herders, now host hundreds of people for almost two months continuously. People need fires to survive during these months of collection, and fell trees in the meadows to make them. “These trees acted as barriers between the warmer air of the lower elevation and the colder air of the tops. With this barrier gone, the temperatures are rising,” Bohra said.

This has led to a depletion of the fungus at lower altitudes where it was once common. “Earlier it used to be found at 1,500 to 2,000 meters, now you’ll be lucky if you can find it at even 3,000 metres,” Bohra said. “This is because the local temperatures have increased.”

While during earlier phases of his research, Bohra would typically find moths and fungus-infected caterpillars in similar numbers, now he finds more moths, he said. “People have also over-extracted the fungus, and therefore the spores aren’t spreading, leading to lower yields,” he added.

People in the region, especially the young, have begun to realise that their activities might be harming the bugyals and, therefore, the yield of keeda jadi. At a place called Burisinyani Udiyar, just before the perilously steep final climb to the bugyal, as the Laxmans and I sat making tea, we were joined by Laxman Singh Luntray, who was on his way down after two months in the meadows.

Luntray is a post graduate student in economics at the Pithoragarh University, who has paid for his education from Class 11 onwards using money from keeda jadi collection. “I don’t think I would have been able to pursue a higher education degree if it had not been for the income from the bugyals,” he said.

But the declining yields worry him. “For the last five six years, the prices have gone down and the yield has also gone down,” Luntray said. “I think we are responsible for this. Before the collection activities started, no one used to go to these bugyals. Now hundreds of us go and leave our trash there.” Some visitors, particularly older ones, he said, even think of leaving trash behind as a way of marking their presence in the areas. “This should be stopped if we are to derive a sustainable income from this.”

Laxman Singh Luntray could pursue an education up to the postgraduate level because of the money he earned from the fungus. He worries that meadows are being destroyed by waste. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

There have been some measures to try and protect the meadows. In 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court ordered a ban on overnight stay in alpine meadows. The order was passed in a public interest litigation, unrelated to keeda jadi collection, which sought the regulation of tourism in the meadows. The court also restricted the number of tourists who could visit one meadow at any given point to 200.

But the collectors I met on the way, including Mehra and Bisht, do not know about the order. They stay for months in the meadows, in direct violation of the order – at 4,500 feet, there is no one to implement the will of the court.

Emmanuel Theophilus, a resident of Munsiyari who runs a non-profit that works on environmental issues, argues that the decline in the collection of keeda jadi, and the income of collectors, may not have occurred if van panchayats had been more carefully conceived and delineated.

These panchayats were created by the British in 1931. As Ramachandra Guha has written in The Unquiet Woods, the years preceding this had seen popular uprisings against the Indian Forest Act of 1927, which, in the name of protecting forests, cut off access for people who had relied on them for generations. In response, people rose up in protest and, in some instances, set off fires in forests – the region that is now Uttarakhand saw the most intense of these protests. In response, the colonial government created van panchayats in the region through the enactment of the Forest Panchayat Act (Forest Councils Act) of 1931, commonly known as the Van Panchayat Act.

These bodies were headed by a village van sarpanch and exercised effective ownership and management control over a demarcated patch of forest that had been used by the village. For many decades, these van panchayats functioned as autonomous bodies that created their own plans for managing forested areas. They existed in parallel with gram panchayats, which oversaw other affairs of a village.

But beginning in 1976, the Central government began to make amendments to the act that diluted the powers of the van panchayat. The 1976 amendments gave the deputy commissioner of a district some powers over appointments, as well as powers to refute or return any resolutions passed by the van panchayats in that district.

The most significant amendments were made in 2001. Until then, there was only one government official who oversaw the work of van panchayats. That year, the government increased the number of officials to five, all from the forest department. These officials were charged with drawing up management plans for van panchayats and ensuring their execution. The dilution of the bodies’ powers continued in 2005, when the number of government officials involved in their functioning was increased to eight.

This state takeover of van panchayats’ powers was also seen specifically in the collection and sale of caterpillar fungus.

At first, Theophilus said, even van panchayats were not involved – people extracted the fungus and sold it without any regulation. It was only when the government realised that there was considerable money to be made that it decided to regulate the activity.

In 1998, the government issued guidelines that stated that each village would be permitted to gather fungus from their van panchayat areas. “The panchayats will facilitate the extraction process and collect the harvest, which then it will hand over to the forest department, which would then pay a pre-decided amount to the people,” Theophilius said.

This essentially gave the forest department control over the money that people could earn. “Obviously this failed,” he added.

“I remember that year when the sale happened through the department, it was a disaster for us,” said Bisht. The thekedars were paying around Rs 12 lakh per kilogram, he added, but “the department was giving us very little. Those who could have made a lakh, made only around Rs 20,000. People then decided not to sell to the department.”

Collection of caterpillar fungus largely happens outside government regulations. Laxman Mehra recounted that one collector from Chulkot had climbed a rocky outcrop and fallen to his death. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

The government’s attempt to control the trade only increased with the 2001 amendments that gave the government greater powers over van panchayats. In effect, though large swathes of land were under the van panchayats, it was the government that had the final say over how they were managed – which in Pithorgarh included decisions over the extraction and sale of caterpillar fungus.

Theophilus, who has surveyed several van panchayat areas, has found that in the Gori valley – of which Munsiyari is a part – around 64% of the land is technically under van panchayats, while 7% is reserved forest, under the control of the forest department. Yet it is the forest department that controls the collection of fungus and other forest produce in the former portion of land. But the unfavourable terms that the government put in place ensured that people largely continued to collect and sell the fungus outside of government regulation – essentially breaking the law.

“They have criminalised an activity which is a very important source of livelihood for the people here,” he said.

Linking collection to van panchayat areas has also led to territorial disputes. The root cause of these disputes traces back to the British approach to creating the van panchayats. The British were chiefly interested in mountainous regions for the extraction of timber. So, in forested areas with a large number of trees, the colonisers created smaller van panchayats encircling the villages, so that the British themselves could retain control over other areas, which had tree cover. In higher altitudes in a village like Ralam, which is practically at the foot of a glacier and has no tree cover, they paid less attention to the delineation of van panchayats, and created ones that covered larger territories – the Ralam van panchayat, for instance, is around 800 square kilometres, bigger than even the largest Protected Areas of the state.

When keeda jadi made these meadows commercially important, these villages, where van panchayats included areas with caterpillar fungus, could manage and regulate collection relatively smoothly, since they had rights over the land. Today, villages like Buen and Phaton each have their own meadow where no one else is allowed to collect keeda jadi. The Buen van panchayat has a set of rules and regulations when it comes to collection and sale of keeda jadi. A date and time period for collection is fixed, and those breaching these rules risk being ostracised. The village also bargains with contractors as one unit and therefore fetches better prices than other areas.

But villages at lower altitudes became sites of conflict, according to Theophilus. Since their van panchayats did not include meadows, the meadows became sites of competition between multiple surrounding villages.

The bugyal that I visited, Halsaun, for instance, does not fall under any van panchayat, and has not been demarcated for collection. Although technically no village is allowed to collect the fungus here, people from over five villages do so, and clash over it. Unlike Buen, there are no local rules to regulate the collection. The officials of the forest department are many miles away, and would take days to reach to the meadows.

Some of the disputes between villages over collection rights have resulted in armed fights.

Mehra recounted one such fight. “I was with the people from Banjkheda village and a fight broke out between them and people from Phapha,” he said. “I think this was around four or five years back. I also had to fight. We uprooted their tents and threw their utensils down the hill. A few of them got hurt too.”

Lakshman Singh Luntray bemoaned the harm that the fungus had done to society in and around Pithoragarh. “It generates some income but at the cost of social harmony,” he said. “People die every year and many have left agriculture and the land has become barren. And now that the collection rates and prices are going down, it will increase our problems.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.