From July to September Goa will witness the plunder and sale of ‘Roen Alami’, cultivated for 120 million years strictly by fungus growing and mound or ‘Roen’ building termites, the seasonal and overexploited wild edible mushrooms, which are being plucked from pristine areas and sold on the roadside and these will appear in major markets at premium price. These wild species play a very important role as a powerful degrading fungus in forest and grassland ecosystems converting fifty percent dead plant material on ground into rich fertile soil. Without this fungus the termite hills can’t degrade dead forest biomass which they bring inside the mounds to grow this species. Besides these mushrooms destroy virus carrying vectors hiding in dead organic matter in forest and keep away diseases affecting humans. It is very necessary for the general public to be aware that like several crops and fruits that are grown these species cannot be artificially cultivated and produced on mass scale by humans for their consumption. These species have no independent existence anywhere in the world and termites need their seeds for their own use. They grow only in association with termites. If there are no termites, no mushrooms and vice versa. If people keep on exploiting the RoenAlami – the food of the termites –which help in degradation of forest litter and cultivating the mushrooms in their habitat- the termite hills, we will lose out on both the mushrooms as well as the complex biodegradation based ecosystem services provided by the termites.
Out of the 90 species found in the World, Western Ghats has 35-40species of Termitomyces Mushrooms cultivated by termites like Macrotermes, Odontotermes, Microtermes, about 15 of which are endemic, 12 were brought earlier in market for sale. But overexploitation over the past 30 years have reduced the local species seen in the market to 5-7 only. Over 50 percent aboveground dead plant material on forest floor and in grasslands; millions of tons per year is converted by the powerful enzymes of these species inside the fungus gardens of the termite hill. People who purchase the mushrooms need to understand that each hectare of forest in the Western Ghats has about 810 termite hills. In mixed forests, termites invade between 21 and 79 percent of trees. Termites turn over large amounts of soil by plastering on trees and the ground. The plant material taken inside the termite hill ends up in the “fungal comb”. Each comb weighs 28-31 kg. The Termitomyces fungus in each comb decomposes 167 to 341 kg of organic matter annually. Besides, the mutuality system creates quarantine by removing virus carrying vectors like ticks on the forest floor. These are brought alongwith dead litter inside the termite hill and composted. Members of public and local BMCs need to prevent destruction of termite mounds and plundering of these species. GSBB fears that overexploitation of these ecologically important mushrooms may also result in eruption or release of quarantined new forest diseases viz. KFDV. We are already battling with viruses, the latest being the Covid-19.
Dr. Nandkumar Kamat, microbiologist and Ph.D guide of Goa University and Consultant, Microbial Biodiversity, GSBB, an authority on wild mushroom diversity of Goa, and World expert on Roen Alami during the awareness program conducted by GSBB to commemorate the International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22, 2021, had warned that we ourselves may be responsible for the next pandemic most likely to originate from the Western Ghats if we persist in destroying the ecosystems that contain such harmful viruses and other disease agents within the forest ecosystem. GSBB with his help had also created awareness on the conservation of Roen Alami since 2018 and had released a poster.
For thousands of years the ethical principles of forest dwellers had conserved these species as they never thought of marketing them But from 1975 the community conservation ethics changed and market forces began to exert pressure leading to overexploitation. With high demand and increasing price which translates into Rs 15000 to 20000 per kilogram on dry basis the traditional pluckers with ‘get rich quick’ and ecologically and ethically irresponsible attitude have been degrading their sensitive wild habitat thus causing erosion of its diversity. There are international conventions prohibiting such unsustainable practices followed by wild mushroom pluckers in USA, UK, EU, etc. where picking of other species of wild edible mushrooms is regulated. The wildlife protection Act, 1972 has ensured protection of such natural species in local wildlife sanctuaries but people still enter secretly inside the forest to collect them. They are ignorant of the different species which they plunder because at young marketable stages these look identical. All wild edible mushroom consumers need to be careful of samples which could be adulterated with look-alike poisonous mushrooms.
Scientists are researching these species to find new drugs and pharmaceuticals. But if species in Goa are destroyed then nothing will be left for science. Many of these species are rare in other states. All states are facing a similar threat but only in Goa these mushrooms fetch a record price. GSBB fears that this year the prices may cross Rs 1500-2000 per packet.
Till the Government declares a total ban on the collection and consumption of these precious mushrooms from wild habitat in future, GSBB appeals to the educated consumers not to encourage exploitation of such wild mushrooms by purchasing them and instead patronize the much cheaper, more nutritious and cleaner button and oyster mushrooms available in abundance in local markets. An online workshop on cultivation of Oyster mushrooms is planned by GSBB, which can be availed by people involved in this trade to earn income through eco-friendly means.
Goa State Biodiversity Board (GSBB) appeals all those involved in plucking, sorting, packing, roadside sale, market sale to leave behind at least fifty percent young stages on the termite mounds for conservation of their diversity. They must completely avoid plucking and bringing very small mushrooms for marketing. Nobody should plunder rare smaller species found outside forest areas. Owners of private forests are also requested to take care of the Roen Alami species and conserve them. These include varieties known as khut or khutyaliolami, toshaliolami, sonyaliolami and chonchyaliolami. People must also not over exploit non marketed smaller species of Termitomyces locally known as Shiti, Shitololami found at the end of monsoon.
In present times the consumers are craving for ethnic food and hence is a temptation to many to make windfall income without returning anything back to nature. The whole world is now sensitive to anything that can’t be cultivated and considered as sacred by our past traditions, precious Roen Alamis of Goa need to be seen as blessings of Earth Goddess Santeri and accordingly treated with respect, as informed by the Department of Information and Publicity.