How I got the story on caterpillar fungus – by Arpita Chakrabarty

How I got the story on caterpillar fungus – by Arpita Chakrabarty

I first came to know about caterpillar fungus from newspaper reports of its seizure. There was occasional news that Uttarakhand police seized caterpillar fungus or locally called ‘keeda jadi’, valued at lakhs of rupees, when it was being smuggled from one point to another.

Caterpillar fungus is illegally harvested in the Himalayan alpine meadows, mainly in the two high-altitude districts of Chamoli and Pithoragarh of Uttarakhand. Both districts share international borders with neighbouring China, making it easier to smuggle and transport to China where one kilogram of the ’biological gold’ is valued at above $5 billion.

In the rugged mountains of Uttarakhand, one needs to walk and climb for kilometers to understand and report on many challenges villagers face, from unemployment to climate change. The villages in the state are scarcely connected by roads. This is also the reason why very few good stories from rural Uttarakhand are reported in local media, let alone national media. A fellowship from PARI gave me an opportunity to reach and cover from places that rarely saw outsiders.

Although there were reports on police capture of caterpillar fungus, there were no ground reports from alpine pastures or remote mountainous villages that saw prosperity in the last decade due to this illegal trade.

Through a friend in local media, one afternoon I met a few pickers of caterpillar fungus in the town of Dharchula. After an initial refusal, they allowed me to enter their village and alpine meadows with my camera after I showed them a letter from the district magistrate of Pithoragarh. The letter requested security personnel and local administration offices to allow me in border areas for journalism coverage. The villagers asked me if anyone else, particularly a male friend, would accompany me to the forest. I replied in negative, and said ‘I would report and shoot photographs alone.’

A footbridge over the river Kali connects the two countries and two border towns – Dharchula in India, and Darchula in Nepal. During summer, Dharchula is emptied out; almost everyone from the town returns to their summer villages and arrive in alpine pastures for caterpillar fungus. Dharchula is also a stopover for the yatris of Kailash Mansarovar.

Later in the evening, I went to the village of keeda jadi pickers located 50 km away from Dharchula. The driver, who himself a picker, introduced me to the few villagers who already finished their harvest and returned to the village. We talked about caterpillar fungus and its risk and financial rewards, their problems of living in a remote village frequented by landslides, their acute crisis of water, unprofitable agriculture, and unemployment.

The villagers decided to send me to the alpine meadows of Satper with a guide. The climb to Satper cuts through deep forests interrupted by small meadows. The journey to other alpine meadows places including their village forest includes steep climbs with absolutely no support of holding on to trees. It is life-threatening, I was told. Satper is located at a distance of about 25 km, while their village forest is just seven km away. Nevertheless, we decided for Satper. I was asked again why no one else was accompanying me to the forest. As a female, I feel much safer travelling alone in the mountains than any city in the country. In last four years of living in the mountains of Uttarakahand, I realised the pahadi people rarely mean any harm; and always offer help and support to outsiders without expecting any financial benefit. So I told them, ‘I’m not afraid and I can do my work alone if you provide me a guide to help me reach the alpine meadows.’

The next morning at three, my guide and I started our journey towards Satper. We packed breakfast and lunch in a tiffin box and tea in a flask. We cut through little hamlets, and people looked at me in horror. We crossed dozens of high-current streams by arranging stones on them. At about eight o’ clock we stopped for breakfast in the middle of the forest. After a brief stop, we resumed our journey and climbed further through deep forests. There were intermittent rains. But the muddy path was now spread with paw marks of leopards. It must have crossed a few minutes before us. I was scared to say the least. As a journalist, I had reported hundreds of stories of leopards mauling people across Kumaon region in last few years, and I now imagined myself being written about in the newspaper. What a fright! The guide said the forest was full of leopards and bears; “You can still snatch away people from leopards’ attacks, but bears are dangerous. You never know how and where they attack from.” I looked at the forest around me; and saw the grass was as much as tall as me. My guide smiled and said he was carrying a knife for safety. I didn’t know if he was joking or being sarcastic.

We stopped for lunch in the afternoon. With every step, the climb got steeper and steeper, and I got more breathless. At about four we reached Satper alpine meadow. It was as large as a city could be perhaps; all I could see was a strolling meadow all around.However, we couldn’t spot the camps of keeda jadi pickers. I felt a sense of fear if we couldn’t find the camps. We weren’t carrying any tarpaulin; and we had finished food already; and only half a bottle of water was left for both of us. My guide then told me that he was coming to Satper after a span of eight years. But he knew the people who visited Satper every year. The villagers mostly visit their village forest, which is nearer but much more difficult to access. I looked at him in disbelief.

The clouds hung low in the meadow. The mountain peaks all around were covered in snow. After looking out closely for sometime, we thought we spotted fumes of smoke going up. We couldn’t decipher whether it was a light mist or smoke fusing with the cloud. The distance was at least five to seven km, if not more. And although my legs and lungs were already giving up, I had no choice but take the pain to know whether it was smoke or mist. There was no looking back.

After more than an hour of chasing the mist, a short and steep climb suddenly brought us to the other side of the mountain. I couldn’t express my happiness to see a few blue tarpaulins spread on the meadow. We survived.

The harvesters – most of them were minors, a few were under ten – expressed fright and horror seeing me. I was an outsider, a female travelling alone without any male company. But soon we were talking more about my experience in living and working in the hills as a journalist, than keeda jadi. One of the teenagers asked me about the best colleges of journalism. We made rice and dal and finished our food by seven in the evening; and there was fire to keep us warm all through the freezing night. Gradually we started talking about keeda jadi; they showed their collection of the season; they talked about how they bought smartphones, built houses, could now travel to Delhi for healthcare and pay fees for civil service coaching. The children said they liked to be fashionable, and keeda jadi has made it possible.

We talked till ten at night. I then fell asleep alone in one tarpaulin. The men slept in other camps nearby. I was woken up by the noise of some utensils in the middle of the night; and I thought it was a bear. I put on my torch and kept it on till the noise died down. Next morning, the children said it was a rat looking for grains. I didn’t know whether they were telling the truth or trying to subside my fears. We had rice and dal at eight in the morning; and then left with the villagers for picking keeda jadi. I shot a few photographs of them combing the land for keeda jadi. Before we started our return journey at ten, we could only find two pieces of keeda jadi. We took their leave; stocked back our food and water and began walking down.

I knew going down was a far more difficult job than climbing. However, it turned out to be a grueling experience. My legs and feet gave up. We stopped every hour or so and took rest, delaying our journey further. The forest ground became very slippery after rains. At five in the evening we reached a hamlet. It was a moment of back-to-civilization mome nt for me. We took rest and had a bowl of maggi. We should have rested for the night there; but we decided against it. We thought we would be back home by nightfall. As the light faded gradually we left the forest and started walking by the streams. With the help of light from one torch and no external light, we knocked into stones and boulders hurting our feet again and again. There was a high-current stream of water on our right, and there were rocks everywhere. There was absolutely no light till our eyes can see. We mistook a star for a light. It was past midnight. We had no tarpaulin to stop for the night. We wanted to reach back the village before dawn. My guide was confident of the path, and I had no choice but to trust him.

At about half past one in the night we were still walking and my guide finally saw a light that was not a star. That was electricity. I walked faster. Someone was showing a torch from the village, and the light was moving. We finally crawled into the village an hour later. My guide’s wife was up whole night. But she didn’t look anxious. She waited for us with food and light. “Where would you have gone hadn’t you returned? You can’t lose your way in the forest”, she said. I slept the entire next day. I met my guide later in the evening. He said he was thankful to God because I trusted him and didn’t panic. And then he smiled and said I walked better than children. I laughed.

Next morning before taking the taxi back to Dharchula, I bid him goodbye. It’s sad I can’t name him or show his photograph to protect his identity. I survived because of him. He is my hero. I owe my life and keeda-jadi story to him.