Taste for Swiftlet's Edible Nest Is Lowering Its Numbers

by Jagdeep S. Chhokar and Satish A. Pande
for National Geographic BirdWatcher
August 22, 2002
Three birders from Pune in the state of Maharashtra in western India were putting together an illustrated book entitled Birds of the Kokan and the Western Ghats. Satish A. Pande, Vishwas Katdare, and Ram Mone decided to visit Vengurla Rocks, located seven miles off the south coast of Maharashtra in the Arabian Sea, to collect information on the status of terns and edible-nest swiftlets.

The Indian edible-nest swiftlet is a slender, sparrow-size, brown bird with a slightly forked tail. The male produces a long, gelatinous strand of condensed saliva from the sublingual salivary glands, which is then wound into a half-cup nest, bonded to a vertical surface.

The relatively tasteless nests are sometimes prepared in soup mixed with chicken, spices, and other flavors as an aphrodisiac, which makes them a much sought-after property. Analysis of bird-nest soup, however, has not revealed any special medicinal value.

Currently, Hong Kong is believed to be the largest consumer of bird nests, importing about a hundred tons every year, at a price of about U.S. $25 million. The major suppliers are Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, southern parts of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. The value of nests has increased substantially in recent years due to restricted supplies. Poachers no longer wait for the chicks to fledge before collecting the nests, which has dramatically decreased the swiftlets' population. Naturalists are concerned that this species may become extinct in five to ten years if the current rates of exploitation are not checked.

At dawn on April 8, 2001, after an hour-long boat ride from the fishing hamlet of Niwati-Medha, the birders landed at the Old Lighthouse Island. On the underside of a lighthouse dome, they discovered about 30 swiftlet nests. This was an exciting discovery, since this nesting site had not been previously recorded. They then moved on to the easternmost Burnt Island, known to be an active nesting site.

As they walked toward the caves, they saw a large number of swiftlets sweeping through the sky above them. On reaching the top of a cliff, they saw birds disappearing into the ground. Closer investigation revealed an opening to a large cave. Inside the dimly lit cavern they were amazed to see bamboo scaffolding built along its wall, a sign that poachers had discovered this remote haven.

They could not negotiate the 22-yard (20-meter) vertical cliff face at the entrance of the cave, so one of the birders swam around the island to another entrance, negotiating the barnacle-studded, sea-urchin-covered sharp rocks, lacerating his hands and feet in the process. When he reached the entrance, he saw thousands of edible-nest swiftlets nesting in the cave's dark recesses.

Nests were constructed from about three feet (one meter) from the ground all the way to the roof. The nest density varied from 20 per square yard to 40 per square yard, resulting in a conservative estimate of 3,000 nests. All the nests were attended by swiftlets that frequently entered and exited the cave, navigating by echolocation and occasionally dashing against the birders. The nests were pearly white, shiny, sticky, and spongy. From the near-complete state of the nests, the birders concluded that eggs would be laid in just a few days.

As the birders made their way back to Niwati-Medha for the night, they were extremely concerned about nest poaching and the destruction of eggs and chicks.

They invited the villagers to view a video they had made of the day's discovery. The villagers were surprised by the scaffolding and said that it was probably the work of visitors from the southern part of India who claimed they came to collect pigeon droppings from the cave for medicinal purposes every April and September, just before and after the monsoon season. The villagers could not explain why scaffolding was required to collect bird droppings from the floor of the cave, and they were not aware of the swiftlets and their unique saliva nests. They seemed shocked to learn about the trade in the swiftlet nests for culinary and aphrodisiac purposes in the Far East.

As soon as the birders returned to Pune on April 10th, they contacted the officials of the Forest Department responsible for the protection of wildlife. They also contacted and wrote letters to Forest Department officials urging that the scaffolding be removed and the entrance and two skylights be blocked with iron grids that would permit free access to birds but not to humans. Immediate action was necessary because the poachers were expected to return any time.

They also phoned the Conservator of Forests. He was unaware of the situation but offered assurance that Forest Department officials would visit the island on Monday, April 16th, since the next days were public holidays.

Not satisfied with this response, one of the birders contacted the Deputy Conservator of Forests in whose jurisdiction the islands were located. He, too, said that the earliest he could send someone would be Monday. The birders felt frustrated, as their sense of urgency did not seem to be fully shared.

Ultimately, they felt that their case needed public support, and they persuaded a local newspaper to publish the news in its editions for the state of Maharashtra on April 15th. When Monday evening came, the birders discovered that the forest authorities still had not left for the island. In the meantime, they received a phone call from a Niwati-Medha fisherman informing them that a gang of about ten poachers had landed on the rocks that afternoon. The fisherman had watched the video in the village and decided to make the phone call on his own initiative. The newspaper had further convinced him of the urgency of the birders' efforts.

Alarmed, the birders contacted the Deputy Conservator of Forests again—mercifully he was still in his office at 9 p.m. He promised to dispatch a couple of men to the rocks the next day. He was advised that since there were about ten poachers, a larger group of armed forest guards would be necessary. Early the next morning, the birders also contacted the Coast Guard in Bombay, who agreed to send a helicopter and a boat if necessary.

On April 17 at 6 a.m., 15 range forest officers arrived at the rocks. They caught five poachers, equipped with modern rappelling gear, in possession of six bags of bird nests.

Subsequently, they removed the scaffolding and initiated the process of declaring the rocks a protected area and the family to which the swiftlets belong—Apodidae—as protected.

It was learned during the investigation that the poachers were mere collectors. Based on their information, a key operator was arrested in Trichy in south India about 932 miles from the location of the caves. He was reported to have said that there was no market for the bird nests in India and that these were collected by agents from the Far East. This gives an indication of how widespread the nexus of poachers and exploiters of nature and wildlife is, and what those involved in conservation have to contend with.

This incident shows that it is possible for amateur birders and active concerned citizens to make significant contributions to the cause of conservation. The fact that a fisherman from the small hamlet decided to inform the birders of the arrival of poachers attests to the importance of spreading environmental awareness among local people. Perhaps by working together, we can save the Indian edible-nest swiftlets for future generations.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar, Ph.D., is a member of the Indian Bird Conservation Network, a life member of the Bombay Natural History Society, and professor and dean at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India. Satish A. Pande, M.D., has published a number of books and articles on birds and ecology-related issues. Vishwas Katdare and Ram Mone are active members of Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, a conservation organization.

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