The morel mushroom has been around for approximately 129 million years, growing in moist high altitude forests. It is unappreciated by most animals, except for humans, who enjoy the mushroom as an edible delicacy and for its medicinal properties. So much so that it is one of the most expensive vegetables in the world. In the Hindu Kush Himalayas of India and Pakistan – where they are called gucchi – the mushroom is worth its weight in gold. Poor villagers earn extra income from gathering the rare and valuable resource.

Empty handed mushroom collectors

Gulshoom Bibi, a 45 year old mother of four, remembers the good old days when she would supplement the income of her family by picking mushrooms from the nearby forest. Her family lives near the National Ayubia Park in Abbottabad, northern Pakistan. Her husband, Muhammad Ashan, is a watchman, who earns PKR 10,000 (USD 94) per month, so the extra income was much needed, but in the last few years the rare mushrooms, and Bibi’s extra income, have virtually disappeared.

“Every year in the month of March, my children and I collected between 10 to 15 kgs of morel mushrooms. This generated an additional income of about PKR 50,000 (USD 472), depending on the market rate and quality. Unfortunately for the last four – five years I am only able to find 2 or 3 kgs of the mushrooms,” Gulshoom Bibi told thethirdpole.net.

Last year collectors like Bibi found very few mushrooms, and the prices skyrocketed. Gulshoom Bibi received PKR 20,000 (USD 187) for the only kg of mushrooms. This is many times the price that she used to receive in 1999-2000, between PKR 4,000 – 5,000 (USD 38 – 47).

According to Bibi, the prices have not risen suddenly, but slowly, as the mushrooms have slowly disappeared from the forests. Shazia Sajid, a 50 year old mother of three, is another mushroom collector. She found none this year. The only things that she found were a few flowers of the mushrooms, nothing worth the while to sell.

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The fluctuating weather and deforestation

According to Sabiha Zaman, who works with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Pakistan, the mushrooms are victims of climate change. “In earlier years the collection season of the morel lasted for two months: March and April. Now the season has been reduced to a few days in March,” Sabiha Zaman told thethirdpole.net.

One of the reasons that morel mushrooms are so expensive is that they are hard to cultivate, and need precise conditions. “If in the month of December, January and February there is routine snowfall in the mountains,” Zaman said, “followed by routine rainfall in March, there is a good production of morel.”

Unfortunately climate change has brought with it inconsistent precipitation patterns in the region. The fluctuating patterns are having a seriously negative impact on everything from agriculture to apiculture.

Read: Pakistan is losing its honey bees to climate change

Professor Juma Muhammad, head of the Department of Environmental Science at the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto University in Dir, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, has been researching morel mushrooms for over a decade. He fears that if the weather situation persists, the mushrooms may disappear entirely. “The situation is worse than we thought,” he told thethirdpole.net. “I know many spots in Swat where the morel used to grow, but in the last 3-4 years they have completely disappeared.”

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Boy showing dry morel in Paran hamlet, Mallach village near Ayubia National Park [image by M Zubair Khan]

Much of this is due to the much shorter duration of cold weather. Syed Mushtaq Ali Shah, the director of the Regional Meteorological Centre (RMC), Peshawar said, “30- 35 years ago the cold weather lasted for six months from October to the middle of April, but now it hardly lasts for three months, from the middle of November to the end of February.

According to the observations of RMC the last few years has had, “unexpected rain, snowfall and drought, with temperatures rising, especially in the months of February and March,” he told thethirdpole.net.

Climate change is not the only factor. Deforestation plays a significant role too. Muhammad Waseem, a conservation officer with WWF-Pakistan, said that the morel mushrooms grow, “in high altitudes in the Himalayan mountains and especially in a moist temperate forest habitat. Deforestation increases the temperature of high altitudes and reduces the winter season duration, thus affecting the production of morel mushrooms in Pakistan”.  Unfortunately, although deforestation is widespread across Pakistan, the only government policy released has not been coordinated with the provinces, limiting its efficiency.

Read: Pakistan unveils first national forest policy without provincial government support

Local economies, and national exports, both suffer

The decline of the morel mushroom is having a very large impact on the people of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. According to a research publication on ethno-botany by WWF-Pakistan published in 2003, 70% of morel mushrooms produced in the Himalayan region of Pakistan come from KP. “About 289,000 forest dwellers, mainly children and women, are involved with the collection and processing of morels in KP.” Another study from the University of Swat revealed that 15,000 kilogrammes, amounting to USD 343,000 per year, was exported from the remote Palas Valley in the Kohistan district of KP every year.

According to the locals in the Palas Valley, and in Swat, both areas have seen a rapid decline in the availability of morel mushrooms. This loss has also affected Pakistan’s big export companies.

Abdual Samad Kanchi is the chief executive of an export company that failed to make any sales this year. “Like every year, last year I received orders from France and Switzerland,” he told thethirdpole.net, “but when I collected details and sent my clients the prices they refused to buy, and told me that from India and Bangladesh they have good offers.”

Morel in Paran hamlet (Auibai National Park)

Morel in Paran hamlet near Ayubia National Park [image by M Zubair Khan]

Another exporter Majeeb Malik said, “In the international market prices are much lower than in Pakistan. Traders and stockists are selling at between PKR 23,000 to 25,000 (USD 216 to 235) and no international client is ready to buy at those prices”. Murtaz Ahmed is in an even worse position. He has 5,000 kgs of morel mushrooms in his warehouse. He wants to sell them at the price he purchased them of PKR 20,000 (USD 187) per kg, but no exporter is ready to buy his stock.

For these large exporters, and the local communities, both of whom depended on the production of morel mushrooms in Pakistan’s Himalayan region, the future looks increasingly bleak.

Scroll over the map to find more stories about climate change and agriculture:
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14 comments

  1. A thought provoking write up, covered almost every aspect on a missing MUSHROOMS, concerned departments must analyse the reason for its decline,and should take measures to restore means & ways for its growth in the FARM HOUSES.

    1. I am not agreed that Morel Mushrooms is disappearing from Pakistan. The facts are that now more peoples hunting Morel Mushrooms in the specific period / area. Last year I also found 14 pieces of Morel Mushrooms from Dewal Murree within 50 meters radius (Roasted and ate). We just need exact weather, area and luck to collect / hunting the Morel Mushrooms 🙂

  2. Climate Change writers are rare in our region this one is encourages the others and also gather good knowledge, information for students and relevant persons. article show the diversity of impacts due to Climate change. highly appreciated, expect lot of work in future. government have to think and quick action need here to reverse the impact at their ealiest

  3. Medicinal plant are going to extinct from Northern Area of Pakistan. This is important and helpful article paying attention to the government and organizations working on Environment. Hard work will be required to overcome the consequences of Climate Change, everyone have to participate.

  4. The disappearing morel mushroom is tip of the climate change impending disaster. Today a delicacy tomorrow our staple diet,all at risk and millions of livelihoods with it. Fortunately,concerned reporters like Zubair Khan regularly draws our attention to various climate change related problems, but it is upto the govt to take urgent action & also educate general public about the climate change.

  5. A very insightful article; Government must take necessary steps to protect Morel Mushrooms.

    Regards
    Haseeb Khawaja
    Journalist – Anchor, Documentary Filmmaker and Social Activist.
    Global Citizen ~ (Islamabad, Pakistan)
    haseebdigital@yahoo.com
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  6. Comprehensive and informative write up on a very important kind of mushrooms, that, apart from their medicinal values, have very visible impact on rural economics. climate change, slowly and gradually and hiddenly, putting its mark on our environment. The choice is our.Do we want to do something or let things happen what happens…? Great efforts to acknowledge…

  7. A very interesting article based on carefully collected secondary data. Being a person of related field, i would like to add that unsustainable harveting of this species is also the reason of its disappearence (personel observations in the Thakht-e-Sulaiman mountains). Similarly, this is not the only story but several others species of utmost economic and cultural importances have more worse conditions.

  8. in my childhood, i used to see this mushroom in my front yard….none of my family members were aware of its importance…we always considered them as unwanted plants like herbs and shrubs…later on when we left that house….our landlord told us that it was one of the most important and beneficial plants in Hazara Division….it really shocked us….coz we always used to consider them as waste…..that’s definitely a sad story for me as an environmental scientist.

  9. What a topic you have chosen… Dear Muhammad Zubair Khan I really appreciate your work and keen interest in these core issues like Deforestation, Wild Life and now on climate change. I really liked this article indeed I used to read your all articles with great interest and use to save that in my laptop, as these are very rich in informations.
    I remember when I was 13 or 14 years old, me with my cousins went to search and collect GUCHAI. At that time we were just known about the benefits of eating Morel Mushrooms. After tiring efforts we collected 3 pieces and on reaching back to home we roasted that and ate☺
    Here in Saudi Arabia Morel Mushrooms are very expensive and one can’t have these easily even paying huge amount of money.
    In my Native District, Battagram KPK, many people are associated with this business,especially women and girls. When they take their cattle to hilly areas for grazing, then they search and collect Morel Mushrooms. In this way they were earning a handsome amount of money, but now they are saying that Morel Mushrooms have disappeared from the surface of earth. This affected them badly.
    Dear Zubair, I am expecting more such stories for my knowledge. I wish you keep it up forever and come with more interesting articles.

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