Shrooms can kill
The work of a mycologist is critical in establishing mushrooms that are highly poisonous. Every year, dozens of Nepalis, mainly children and from poorer families, die from eating toxic mushrooms because the edible and poisonous varieties look the same.
“Most of the people living near the forest, or low income people who depend more on the forest, are the ones getting poisoned,” explains mycologist Shiva Devkota.
Mushrooms, which grow out of the ground only for up to three months in a year in the forest, are discovered, they are collected and shared with family and neighbours. If one of them happens to be toxic, it can kill an entire household or impact the whole community.
In 2019, six people in the same family died in Palpa from toxic mushrooms. In 2016, eight people died in Panchthar district from eating poisonous mushrooms.
Devkota was leading a mushroom expedition to the Everest region last month when he got news of 19 mushroom-related casualties from Butwal. Most mushroom illnesses and deaths, however, are unreported as they occur in remote rural areas.
“There has previously been a communication gap, but now we know that mushroom poisonings are happening, and we hear about the deaths,” adds Devkota.
In the Everest region, most toxic mushrooms are found below Lukla and the ones at higher altitudes are generally safe.
“Just like there are no poisonous snakes the higher you go, there are no poisonous mushrooms here,” says Ang Jangmu Sherpa who has a lodge in Tengboche.
The differences between an edible and deadly mushroom may be imperceptible. “If you don’t know what you are doing, stay away from amonita,” says American researcher Britt Bunyard. Amonita has an iconic white cap, red dots, and veil.
In 2021, Devkota and the Himalayan Climate and Science Institute partnered to create educational material for villagers, government agencies and clinics in Gandaki Province when mushroom foraging was more common during the pandemic.
In the Khumbu, mushroom poisoning is not so serious. Locals only collect ones that they know are safe, and even then slice it to see if it has a green or purplish tint, indicating toxins.
“Nepalis have been using mushrooms for a long time for medicinal purposes and for food. They are closely attached with folklore and taboos,” says Devkota who wants to step up awareness so more Nepalis can rely on this important and easily-stored food source.
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