Bhutan's rare and exotic fungi 'stolen to order'

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The Independent Online

Bhutan has accused China of allowing gangs of mushroom thieves to cross the disputed border between the two countries illegally in search of rare and exotic fungi.

Lawmakers from the tiny mountain kingdom between India and Tibet claim that Tibetans are crossing into Bhutan to harvest Cordyceps mushrooms, which are prized for their qualities as an aphrodisiac and which can sell for up to £4,000 a kilogram.

The fungi furore follows protests from Bhutan that China is encroaching on its territory by building roads inside the country. The two countries have no diplomatic ties but share a disputed 285-mile border which has been closed since 1960, when thousands of Tibetans fled to Bhutan to avoid a brutal crackdown by Beijing.

Melting glaciers in the passes along the border have recently made it easier for Tibetans to slip into Bhutan. "The number of people coming across the border to collect cordyceps mushrooms has greatly increased over the past few years," said one member of Bhutan's National Assembly, the Tshogdu, in the nation's capital Thimphu. "We would be grateful if, between April and August, the government can provide security personnel along the border."

The mushrooms, which are also known as the "caterpillar fungus", have become increasingly popular in the west. Numerous websites in the US sell Cordyceps supplements. Last month, Bhutan's only newspaper, the government-run Kuensel, reported that lawmakers were claiming that China had violated a 1998 agreement by building new roads. Under the agreement, the Chinese promised to "fully respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan".

"There are chances that the Chinese might build more roads further into our territory and gradually claim the land as theirs since they have their roads on our territory," said one unnamed member of the Tshogdu.

"Bhutan is a small country with limited land so even if we lose a small area, it would be a big problem for our future generations and it also has implications on our country's sovereignty," said another.

When Bhutan first protested to China about the road-building in July, Beijing told the Bhutanese that they were "over-reacting" and that the roads were being constructed as part of the economic development of western China. Bhutan, which has a population of just 650,000, relies on India for protection but has been holding talks with the Chinese since 1984 in an attempt to clarify the border between the two countries.

Bhutan, which in 1999 became the last country in the world to introduce television, is preparing for its first elections in 2008. As part of the move towards democracy, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced on 17 December that he would abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, in 2008.

The monarch, 49, whose four wives are all sisters and who is known as the Dragon King, has ruled Bhutan since 1972.

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