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.

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