The Caterpillar Hunters
This project grew out of a fusion of two passions – for people and for adventure. In June 2017, I set out on a 35 day expedition through the remote mountainous desert of Dolpo in Western Nepal with a team of four local men and five mules. I was inspired by the French photographer Éric Valli’s and Diane Summer’s book ”Caravans of the Himalaya” (1995). It tells the story of the Dolpo-pa, the nomadic agro-pastoralists of Dolpo who have existed for thousands of years in isolation from the world, moving their caravans and yaks between the mountains and plateaus to graze livestock and exchange grain for Tibetan salt.
I found that a lot has changed since the 90’s. Cross-border trade is now restricted to a time-window of 15 days per year. The caravans still travel to Tibet, but instead of salt people now buy everything from solar batteries to Coca-Cola, and instead of grain they mainly sell yartsa gunbu - a cash crop that is driving the commodification of a traditional subsistence economy.
Yartsa gunbu (translated from Tibetan as “summer grass, winter worm”) is a caterpillar-fungus that forms when a parasitic fungus infects a larva of a ghost moth living underground. The fungus devours the body of the caterpillar, leaving only the external skeleton intact. As spring comes, a tiny brown stalk of the fungus sprouts from the dead caterpillar’s body and emerges from the soil. This fungus-insect fusion only occurs in the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau at altitudes of 3000 to 5200 meters.
Yartsa gunbu is widely known as Himalayan Viagra, because of its aphrodisiac properties, but it is also prescribed for kidney and heart problems, and used to treat Hepatitis B and cancer. Sold at around 100 $ per gram on the Chinese market, it is more expensive than gold.
Every year for around six weeks during May-July entire villages are emptied and schools closed in Dolpo as people migrate to the mountains to try their luck in the annual hunt for yartsa gunbu. It is nothing short of a high stakes gamble. Some families crawl along the mountain slopes for 11 hours a day finding little to nothing, while others return after weeks in the mountains with more than a hundred pieces of the caterpillar. Every year lives are lost in the pursuit, as people stay for long periods in tented camps at low-oxygen levels and in below-freezing temperatures. In later years the search has become even more difficult because of a serious decline in yartsa gunbu yields, possibly due to overharvesting and climate change.
Even today Dolpo is physically very isolated from the globalised world – villages can only be reached by many days travel on foot, and there is no mobile or internet connection. One day this may change, invariably leading to societal changes in Dolpo. I wanted to capture Dolpo as it exists today.
The photographs in this project mark the beginning of many friendships. People asked me to return and bring back their images. “It is a part of my soul, I entrust you with it”, one man said, and then added, “But please bring it back to me. I don’t want my soul to wander around the world forever.” In the future, I hope to continue this project and cover the whole process of yartsa gunbu trade between Nepal and Tibet. I am also working on publishing my diary from the expedition.
I hope these photos inspire people to venture out into the world and experience the diversity of our planet.