Fungi frenzy: Unchecked mushroom picking causing alarm

PANAJI: Goans' craving for the mouth-watering culinary monsoon delight of termitomyces mushrooms has sent its prices soaring through the roof to record levels and raised fears of driving the protein-rich resource towards extinction.

A leaf-wrapped parcel containing 100 pieces of matured egg-stage mushrooms commands a whopping price of 1,000 in the market. When the first immature fruit bodies, not even half the size of normal ones arrived, they were lapped up at 500 for an identical number, sources said.

"This is a record price for these mushrooms, as they will be several times cheaper in Karnataka," Goa University associate professor and mushroom biologist Nandkumar Kamat said.

The stocks are sold off the streets, away from the markets, apparently due to a ban on their harvesting. And the prices keep galloping every year due to the rising demand. "A parcel of more mature ones has been sold for even 1,200," a city vendor said.

The demand and supply situation is triggering a reckless plucking spree in forest areas for the wildly- growing, ranantlim or roinnintlim almi, as they are locally called.

"There is an alarming erosion of the gene pool of termitomyces mushroom in the state," Kamat said. The market survey carried out by Goa University students in various markets indicates the rash exploitation. "If this trend continues, they may disappear after a decade or two," he added.

A forest official conceded that traditions are being thrown to the winds. "Earlier, the pickers would keep a few mushrooms in the name of God," the official said.

Goa boasts of more than 400 species of mushrooms which have been catalogued by Kamat. "There are about 80 to 100 edible species, but they don't grow in quantities to be sold," he said.

The forest department first stirred into action after Kamat submitted a report about the reckless plucking of the termitomyces mushrooms in 1991. The department started issuing public notices annually since 1992, warning pickers about the ban and consequences of being caught. But the practice has become inconspicuous in recent years.

A forest official conceded that no publicity has been carried out in recent years. "The department is hampered by lack of a proper study," he said.

Villagers on the fringes of forests strongly oppose the ban and their elected representatives have exerted political pressure to scale it down. In 1993, the government relented and restricted the ban to wildlife sanctuaries.

The resistance is linked directly to economic reasons. "No investment or hired labour is required to gather the crop and it is a source of assured income from urban and roadside marketing," Kamat said.

Sensitizing of stakeholders is considered important for conservation. "Education is important and best practices adopted in other countries should be followed to protect the gene pool. The government should auction it as a minor forest produce like cane," Kamat said.

The potential production can be assessed and tenders floated to harvest the surplus in forests and wildlife sanctuaries under supervision. "It cannot be like the present first come, first served basis of plucking immature fruit bodies," an environmental activist said.

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