EVERY YEAR, as the snow begins to melt towards the end of April, Mahender Singh Bisht and his friends trek three days from their village of Sai-polo in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon division to fields near the Poting Glacier, about 40 kilometres to the north-west. Here, at an altitude of about 3,800 metres, they spend two or three days crawling on their hands and knees, scouring the ground for the protruding stalks of what is known, in the local Kumaoni, as kira jhar—ghost moth caterpillars attached to the stalks of a fungus that attacks and mummifies them during their underground larval phase. The matchstick-sized stalks grow out of the larvae’s heads, almost like miniature unicorn horns, and jut up just above ground. Kira jhar is highly prized in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, whose practitioners claim, with no scientific backing, that it is a tonic and an aphrodisiac, and can even treat certain cancers. Picking it is a delicate operation. “We dig in to about six inches on both sides of the stalk to pluck the mummified body of the caterpillar out of the ground,” Bisht said. “It has to be done with an almost surgical precision.”
The collection of kira jhar (also known by the Tibetan name yartsa gunbu) is a matter of considerable controversy. Soaring Chinese demand has meant kira jhar now fetches prices that put caviar to shame. Its collection and sale has been regulated in Uttarakhand since 2005, but pickers routinely sell to middlemen on a thriving black market. Chandra Singh Negi, an associate professor of zoology at the LSM Government Post Graduate College in Pithoragarh and the lead researcher in an ongoing study of the kira jhar trade in Kumaon, told me pickers have been paid as much as Rs 12 lakh per kilogram. But, he added, “Prices tend to fluctuate a lot since kira is largely trafficked [illegally].”
The Uttarakhand government allows all villages—except those in reserved forests and sanctuaries—to pick as much kira jhar as they can find within the areas controlled by their respective van panchayats (community forest councils). Until 2012, pickers were required to hand their stocks over to the state forest department for auction, and to pay five percent of their earnings to their van panchayats as a royalty. Now, the panchayats are authorised to carry out auctions themselves.