The search for a potent herb, known as 'jeevan buti' or the life-giving herb, in northern Nepal's snowy mountain slopes has resulted in the death of at least 16 people while dozens have been blinded and hundreds reported missing.
The Nepalese home ministry told IANS the disaster occurred due to heavy snowfall in a remote and inaccessible village called Kahigaon, about four days walk from Dunai, the headquarters of the northern Dolpa district.
In the remote north, cut off from the rest of the kingdom for absence of roads and an inadequate telecom system, the yarshagumba or cordyceps sinensis, an amazing fungus growing on butterfly larva at heights above 4000 metres, is one of the props of economy.
About 50 per cent of the supply comes from Dolpa, once an ancient Tibetan kingdom and part of the ancient salt trade route between India and Tibet.
Every year, villages are deserted and schools closed as residents head for the mountains to collect the yarshagumba, Nepal's ginseng, demand for which has been growing due to its perceived efficacy as an aphrodisiac.
The yarshagumba rush occurred this year as well. However, from Saturday, there had been heavy snowfall without any warning. As a result, nearly 1600 villagers have been missing.
The home ministry, on the basis of reports received from the area, said 16 bodies had been found. An army helicopter went to the area to help in the rescue operations Tuesday.
The yarshagumba disaster comes as conservationists have been warning a succession of governments for years about the potential ecological peril the summer searches could trigger.
Community forest users point out that every year, there is an influx of thousands of people from the adjoining districts, raising the risk of habitat destruction.
The government had banned the collection of yarshagumba till 2001. But rampant smuggling forced it to lift the curb.
Currently, there is a government levy of NRs. 20,000 ($307.69) per kg of the herb plucked but due to feeble enforcement of laws and dearth of vigilance the government's coffers remain empty.
There are over 3 million registered exporters and importers of yarshagumba, with China being a major player.