The caterpillar fungus has many claims to fame.
It is the most expensive fungus in the world, for one, with prices rising as high as $20,000 a kg, or Rs 16 lakh at current exchange rates. It has a dramatic life-cycle – it infects the larva of a moth, then sprouts from its head, leaving the host dead. It is believed to be an aphrodisiac, and was once a popular gift in China to establish business relations.
In India, the fungus grows in the Himalayan meadows in the mountains of Uttarakhand. Over the past three decades, it became the source of a massive income boost for people living in villages close to these meadows.
But recent years have left these same collectors anxious about the future as several interlinked reasons, including overharvesting and climate change, have led to declining yields and incomes. This has sparked conflicts between villages who compete for the same produce.