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29th August 1999

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Will man's greed for the Swiftlet's dainty nest cause its extinction?

Their home, our soup

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

I held the thick, black yet dainty nest in my open palm. So neat and delicately built, it was a marvel of the architectural genius of the cave-dwelling bird known as the Indian Swiftlet. And it wrenched my heart to visualize the plight of this tiny sparrow-like bird which creates its home in a massive Swiftlet Imagecolony in a deep, dark cave.

I was obviously holding a goldmine of sorts. For the edible nest of the Swiftlet fetches high prices in Far Eastern countries, ultimately ending up in a soup-testimony to human greed for money and gastronomic appetites.

The biggest detection of edible nests in this part of the world was made just last week when the Customs Department confiscated a massive consignment of nests, weighing 44 kg. The consignment was declared correctly, though heavily undervalued at Rs. 55,000 a kg. Authorities imposed the biggest ever fine for the violation of Section 31 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Act, Rs.1.4 million on the exporter.

Once again, the Indian Swiftlets, (scientifically known as Collocalia Unicolor) have come to the forefront. Recent Customs detections have bared massive rackets, including an attempt to smuggle 6.2 kg of the edible nests to Malaysia under the guise of 'sea moss'.

Samantha Gunasekera, Asst. Superintendent of Customs says smugglers are devising novel methods Imageto circumvent the legal framework. Nests are being declared as shark or whale fins, moss, sea weed and even spider webs!

Sri Lankan authorities made their first successful detection of birds' nests in 1993. Then the nests came in raw form. In 1995, nests were refined pellets declared as shark fins. This time, they came in the form of small crushed pieces, explained Mr. Gunasekera.

"There is a gruesome trend of exploiting the flora and fauna with blatant disregard to nature. Earlier, these nefarious practices were confined to a few errant traders, but there are increasing attempts to export our flora and fauna," Mr. Gunasekera observed.

According to ornithological studies, the Indian Swiftlet is the only 'edible nest builder' among the five species of resident Swifts found in Sri Lanka. The bird secretes saliva, which once hardened takes on a white, thick gum like form which is used as nest cement.

Swiftlets build in dark caves, occasionally in culverts, tunnels and empty caves. Limestone caves and sea caves are favoured by these birds who neatly saliva-glue their nests to the cave walls. Despite being engulfed by the darkness of the cave they are able to function using echo-location techniques.

But the nests originally meant for two tiny Swiftlings have become a thriving trade for exploiters who are catering to Far Eastern markets.

The history of edible nest harvesting is believed to date back to the Chinese T'ang Dynasty (68-97 AD) even though there are no written references to such activity. Though there is no scientific research to back this claim, the Chinese, believed these nests possessed aphrodisiac and other benefits. They are considered a Chinese delicacy.

Commercialization crept in during the 19th century when British authorities based in India, annually auctioned contracts to export nests to China, a practice which faded due to over-exploitation.

In Sri Lanka, nest gathering was practised on a large scale by the native Veddahs, especially during the breeding season. There are references to the ancient practice of nest gathering in the dry zone in R.L Spittel's "Wild Ceylon". It was noted, however, that the nests were cleared, once the Swiftlings were grown.

With the illegal trade growing, environmentalists are calling for stringent action against exploiters to protect the threatened bird species.

Legal protection

According to Jagath Gunawardena, environmental lawyer and member of the Flora and Fauna Protection Advisory Committee, the bird has been protected by law since 1964. It is a punishable offence to destroy birds, eggs or nests and with the 1993 amendment to the Flora and Fauna Act, penalties have also been increased, he said.

Therefore, capturing, killing or wounding birds, destroying nests or eggs, selling or offering to sell parts of bird or possession of such, are liable to a fine ranging from Rs. 5,000 to Rs.10,000 and a prison term.

But, Mr. Gunawardena sees cause for concern as there is little protection from international trade laws.

"In 1994, Italy proposed to enlist Indian Swiftlets under Appendix 2 of the CITES Agreement (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) which was withdrawn later. That would have opened the flood gates for commercial exploitation," he said.

As a preventive measure, he proposes having special flying squads to carry out raids and apprehend smugglers and collectors. There should be active police participation to curb the practice, he notes.

Harvesting by night

With the rapid expansion of the market for edible bird nests, massive harvesting operations are being carried out in Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura and Kandy districts where rock caves and Imagetunnels are found in abundance.

Nest harvesting is mostly carried out in the night, and the vast colonies are scraped off the cave walls using blunt implements, leaving behind smashed eggs and helpless baby birds still unable to fly, to be eaten by ants.

The 'black nests' normally found in the tropics fetch low prices while the refined white nests have a greater demand.

The nests are, however sold after processing, at which stage all foreign matter like moss, feathers and twigs is removed.

According to reports, there are four recognized methods of marketing nests–in unprocessed large pieces, in unprocessed brown form, processed into white form or made into refined white pellet form.

With nests being collected for commercial purposes, ornithologists have little or no luck with nest harvesting. Deforestation and nest collecting have also contributed to a marked decrease in the Swiftlet population.

Markets are expanding in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Myanmar and Vietnam (countries which are also the highest suppliers). It is learnt that in 1990 alone, the Hong Kong consumption rate was 265,000,000 nests.

According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) research in Hong Kong (the highest market and also the processing centre for raw whole nests), imports have tripled in 30 years though supply has failed to meet the demand. Prices have also soared with increasing annual consumption.

In Hong Kong, a kilogram of whole white nests fetched HK$ 10,000-16,500 while medium-sized nests fetched HK $ 8,000-10,000. Yan- ging—jiao (hard pieces of the thickened edge of the whole white nest) fetched HK$ 9,000 while the processed black nests went for HK$ 3,000. The cheapest were the whole black nests at HK$1,300 to 1,500 per kg.

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