Whole new planet

The world of fungi is exquisite, vast and largely unknown to many people. There are around 4-5 million species but only 200,000 are known to scientists.
Meghalaya is among the places which have a wide variety of mushrooms, both edible and inedible, and this has been featured in a documentary film, an initiative of Assam-based NGO Balipara Foundation.
Planet Fungi-North East India was recently screened at the 8th Mumbai Shorts International Film Festival and was also selected for the Druk International Film Festival in Bhutan. The film, shot by renowned fungi photographer Stephen Axford (in inset picture), is competing for the Golden Dragon Awards next year.
Balipara Foundation — which works towards nature conservation, livelihood and community development in the Eastern Himalayas — started the project in 2018 with an aim to document the fungi varieties in the forests of Eastern Himalayas.


“The film is the outcome of a project that was to assess wild edible and poisonous fungi. The project is in collaboration with Kunming Institute of Botany, China,” said Gautam Baruah of Balipara Foundation.
The groundwork, however, began in 2017 with the launch of a book about the mushrooms of northeastern region. The foundation then thought of taking up the documentation work with the help of Kunming Institute. It also decided to document the process of identification of the fungi, and hence, Axford came on board.
The documentary was written and directed by Catherine Marciniak, who is a senior features reporter with ABC North Coast, Australia.


The project covered Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya and the team took help from the local population to explore the fungi planet. The shooting was done in July and August, “which is when the mushroom season starts after the monsoon”.
“Our exploration of the forests in Eastern India provided many varied and beautiful fungi. The very high rainfall is a perfect environment for the growth of mushrooms (the fruit of fungi) and the remaining old growth forests are a wonderful resource which conserves the biodiversity of fungi and flora and fauna,” said Axford.
The team recorded over 500 species of fungi, 60 per cent of which were in Meghalaya and many of which are new to science. “We got photographs and collected some samples from the forests and sent them to the Kunming Institute for DNA analysis and identification. We later realised that it would make sense if we took another trip. This time (in 2019), we had a mycologist for spot identification of mushrooms,” said Baruah.


The team identified a luminous species of fungus in Mawlynnong. Baruah said they were lucky that they found the species and the sample was sent to the institute. “There are different types of luminous fungi but this one was new. Even the genus was unknown to scientists,” informed Baruah.
The film was made in two phases, the last being in 2019. According to Baruah, the knowledge about the forests and the wild produce is unknown to the younger generation and there is a need to document the fungi species.
Axford, whose images of fungi have been featured in leading science and nature magazines across the globe, is renowned for his time lapses of fungi growing and in Planet Fungi too, he has used many of his fungi time lapses. The documentary maker is impressed by the high diversity of fungi species in the forests of Meghalaya.
“As a photographer, my primary aim is not to document new species, as that needs a mycologist who can do the required work. Fortunately we had a mycologist with us, Dr Samantha Chandranath Karunarathna who could do the necessary work on the luminous fungus. As there are estimated to be about 4 million species of fungus on this planet, and we have currently named no more than 200,000, there is a lot of opportunity for new discoveries. My aim is to show people the beauty and diversity of fungi and also, hopefully, to teach people something of the fascinating role that fungi play in the ecology of life,” said the expert in an email interview.
The filmmaker said he would love to come back to Eastern India in the future and “we already have plans to visit Eastern Nepal next year”. Axford and Marciniak have also taken part in fungi expeditions to Yunnan, Thailand, Myanmar, Eastern India and Nepal in previous years. “The Eastern Himalayas are an area that keeps pulling us back,” he added.
Among the locals who helped the team to venture into the wilderness of Meghalaya in search of different types of fungi was Bilinso Syiemlieh of Mawkyrwat. The 69-year-old woman is an expert on wild mushrooms, vegetables, fruits and ornamental plants.
Syiemlieh, who has been awarded by the foundation for her knowledge of the wild, is one of the main characters in the documentary. But while locals know about the varieties of mushrooms, they have little information about the market value.
“This is an area that is most important to us. One of the major advantages of working with an organisation like the Balipara Foundation is that it promotes the dissemination of information about the uses of fungi to and from local people. This not only improves the economic well being of the local people, but also provides an incentive for them to protect rapidly declining forest resources,” said Axford.
Balipara Foundation is running an awareness programme on fungi and from January, it will start its community production units where 10-20 villagers will grow mushrooms.
According to Baruah, there are around 200 domestically cultivated species in China whereas in India, it is only four or five.
“We want to domesticate the wild varieties so that they can be marketed. Then people will earn a lot. Also, mushrooms are a source of nutrients for humans as well as animals. So we can provide an alternate livelihood,” he added.
As part of the project, the foundation will release an encyclopaedia of mushrooms “next year or early 2021 after analysing the data that we have collected”.
Talking about the novel task that the NGO has taken up, Axford said, “Organisations like the Balipara Foundation do vital work in helping to document the fungi in Eastern India. As Saurav Malhotra (of the foundation) said, ‘if you don’t know what’s there, how can you save it?’ They also help to promote the conservation of forest and natural environments which are becoming crucial to the survival of the planet as we know it. Without the Balipara Foundation we would not have been able to make this trip.”

~ NM
Photo courtesy: Stephen Axford & Facebook