Illegal yarsa trade incurs millions of loss annually

SURKHET, Nepal – Illegal exports of yarsagumba to bordering Tibetan towns have been incurring millions of losses to national revenue yearly. Regarded for its medicinal values, this rare and unique herb found in the Himalayan region is smuggled out of the country every year due to lack of efficient and effective implementation of regulations.

Every year, Rijing Thurba of upper Dolpa collects yarsagumba from the meadows during May – June and heads towards Kyato Bazzar in Tibet during the early weeks of July to sell it. He has regular buyers there who wait for him for the whole year and pay him good price for the consignment for all the trouble he takes in reaching out to them. This annual deal of the precious herb, which among others is regarded as the Himalayan Viagra, fetches him around Rs 700,000.

Dolpa residents reach Kyato after a five day trek through the rugged Himalayas and ravens from the district headquarter. Despite the difficult journey, hundreds of Dolpa residents like Thurba travel to Kyato every year to fetch better price for their hard-picked yield of yarsagumba. Though, this visit earns the residents good prices, it deprives the nation of the revenue that it would otherwise generate.
“We collect yarsagumba with much difficulty. And when it comes to selling the fetch, it is more difficult and full of hassles to sell it in the local market,” explains Thurba while elaborating on the reason to take the difficult route to Tibet for selling instead of selling it to local merchants in the district headquarters. “In contrast the Tibetan market is convenient and the merchants there offer better prices than our local merchants. Hence, lots of people like me prefer Tibetan market over local market.”

Nepal is a rich habitat for yarsagumba and annual produce of the herb is estimated around five tons, informed Raju Chhetri, former chief district forest officer (DFO), Dolpa. Majority of the collection is sold in Tibet’s market. “Hardly one third portion of around 1,500 kg yarsagumba collected from the Patan of Dolpa is exported through legal channels,” said Chhetri. “Sellers are attracted to Tibet’s market as they can sell it there at high prices without hassles. Though the practice is an open secret, the government has not been able to control this smuggling due to various difficulties and problems.”

Smuggling of yarsagumba, however, is not limited to Dolpa. The practice is rampant in all the 21 districts where the herb is collected. Such trend points to the inconsistencies and hassles involved in the legal process that the farmers have to go through for selling their annual yield. “If the government can remove the hassles in yarshagumba trade and introduce effective measures to manage it properly, its trade can be a very reliable source to Nepal’s economy,” added Chhetri.

Government had legalized yarsagumba trade from the fiscal year of 2001/2002 and official data claim that during the 13 fiscal years that followed a total of just 6,700 kg of the herb has been exported. Based on the studies conducted by Chhetri, who presently serves as the DFO for Bajura, the recorded quantity is not even 10.30 per cent of the total yarsa exports during the period. So where does this yarsagumba go – the answer is “straight to Tibet from Patan.”

For a short time frame, the Tibetan border is opened in August. During this time, the herb is smuggled into Tibet and these practices go unnoticed as such practices are yet to come under jurisdiction of the government. A taskforce formed by the government to study this illegal trade had concluded that smuggling of yarsagumba into Tibet has remained unchecked due to the porous border transits.

Dolpa alone has six open gateways into Tibet that provide hassle-free access to Tibetan market. Along with Dolpa, Tinkar of Darchula district and Taklakot of Humla district are other major hubs used for smuggling yarsagumba into Tibet. Some established traders, with sufficient capital even charter helicopters to deliver yarsagumba consignments to their Tibetan customers. “Local traders have admitted of chartering choppers to avoid customs on their yarsagumba consignments,” the task force report claimed.

Along with China, yarsagumba is also exported to Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Germany among other countries in large amounts. However, records maintained by the customs department shows that export to those countries are almost negligent. According to the customs office at Tribhuwan International Airport, 39.4 kg of yarsagumba was exported in the fiscal year of 2013/2014 while only 0.5kg is recorded exported during the current fiscal year.


“Of late, we have initiated x-ray scanning in collaboration with Nepal Police to check smuggling of the herb to international destination. However, as it is exported in small quantities, it’s very difficult to notice,” said Shishir Kumar Dhungana, director general of the department. Tracking yarsagumba smugglers is even harder if they are traveling through road. The herb can be easily exported by individuals traveling through public and private vehicles.

These traders are not worried about evading tax. They make the arduous journey to Tibetan towns for selling their merchandise, because the trade there is carried out under the table and their identity remains a secret. This makes them safe from any attacks for robbing them of their earnings. “When a trader pays taxes for yarsagumba export, it becomes a public knowledge. And since huge amount of money is involved in it, some might even try to rob yarsagumba from him. Hence, traders try to avoid paying taxes and safely export it abroad, although it means illegal dealings,” Norbhu Ghale, chairman of Dolpu Janajati Bikash Kendra, an organization dedicated to encourage traders to pay taxation in yarsagumba exports said.

At the end of the day if the traders don’t feel safe selling their merchandise at home, if they don’t get better prices at home than they will continue making the arduous journey to Tibet, because it means better price and better security, Ghale said. To resolve the situation, Ghale claims that government should ensure safety of the traders and remove hassles in trading the herb in the local market. “Additionally, the government should bring proper export policies in the country, which should encourage traders to sell yarsagumba to the government instead of selling it to the middlemen in Patan that have direct link to Tibetan buyers,” he said.