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Collecting Ophiocordyceps sinensis: an emerging livelihood strategy in the Garhwal, Indian Himalaya

Abstract

In the Garhwal of Uttarakhand, India, the Bhotiya, an ethnically and culturally distinct tribal group, were historically engaged in seasonal migration (i.e. transhumance) to take advantage of scarce mountain resources and trade relations with Tibet. This livelihood practice has all but disappeared. Households are adapting to these changing circumstances by engaging in the collection and sale of the valuable alpine medicinal fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis, widely known as Cordyceps. The collection of this fungus has exploded, emerging as a lucrative yet high-risk livelihood strategy for many Bhotiya communities. The Bhotiyas’ historic herding and trade-based interactions and knowledge of these alpine environments where Cordyceps are found uniquely positions them to access this valuable biological resource. Elsewhere in the Himalayan region, some households are earning as much as two-thirds of their income from the collection of Cordyceps; in China Cordyceps is now listed as an endangered species due to intense over-exploitation in the Tibetan Plateau. This paper seeks to fill the void in the scientific literature on the social, ecological and economic aspects of the emerging Cordyceps trade in the Garhwal. Our study investigates the socio-spatial dimensions of Cordyceps collection in the high alpine meadows. We document how a fusion of local knowledge and practice with alpine mountain systems has served to reinvigorate the economic integrity of mountain communities at a time of rapid socio-economic change and to reimagine a new relationship between alpine resources and community well-being. The article offers suggestions to address the sustainability of both Cordyceps collection and livelihood activities which hinge on this fungus population. We find a need for (1) community-based conservation measures that are rooted in (2) secure resource access rights for local communities to continue sustainable collection and sale of Cordyceps and (3) participatory-and science-based processes for determining appropriate local collection numbers.

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Acknowledgement

This research was generously funded in part by the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana, Missoula. Our deepest appreciation goes to those who participated in our study. The logistical support and research assistance provided by the Mountain Shepherds Initiative and the Nanda Devi Campaign based in Uttarakhand were paramount. Finally, we want to thank the four anonymous reviewers who provided detailed and thoughtful comments on this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Laura Caplins.

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http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1481-5190

http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7431-9730

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Caplins, L., Halvorson, S.J. Collecting Ophiocordyceps sinensis: an emerging livelihood strategy in the Garhwal, Indian Himalaya. J. Mt. Sci. 14, 390–402 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11629-016-3892-8

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Keywords

  • Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis)
  • Garhwal
  • Himalaya
  • Livelihood
  • Alpine meadows
  • Bhotiya
  • Sustainability