The rising demand for edible birds’ nests is not spelling trouble for the birds, thanks to the booming industry of swiftlet farming, writes Zuliantie Dzul
THE siren from the police escort’s big white motorcycle cuts through the bustling streets of Sandakan town. Behind him, six vehicles with their hazard lights blinking follow en suite as he weaves through the traffic, stopping motorists in their tracks to let the convoy through.
In the cars are the doyens of edible birds’ nests business. Known for their 100 per cent pure, natural and genuine edible birds’ nests, Charn So Bird’s Nest Berhad (CSBN) chairman Datuk Xu Chiyan, directors Yong Wai Leng, Liu Wai Hung, Datuk Seri Yew Kien Cheong and Beijing’s CSBN general manager Tang Haiping are bringing us to Gomantong Caves, a two-hour drive from Sandakan town.
Dubbed the largest swiflet cave system in South East Asia, the company has recently been awarded a three-year contract to harvest edible nests from part of these caves.
An MoU detailing this latest venture will be signed today with the main overseer or contractor of the caves, AB Cahaya Sdn Bhd. In addition, CSBN with the help of AB Cahaya will also be building 1,000 swiftlet ‘houses’ in Malaysia.
I don’t relish the thought of visiting the caves as I have an extreme phobia of roaches and Gomantong evidently has many.
I’m tempted to stay behind but caving has been on my bucket list for the longest time, and the fact that I could cross yet another item off my list gets me out of the car to follow the group. Perhaps today’s the day I get to face up to my old childhood fear.
There are actually two trails leading to different parts of the Gomantong Caves – Simud Hitam and Simud Putih. We take the accessible trail of Simud Hitam – a 15-minute walk on a wooden platform leading from the car park – into the cave where the black birds’ nests can be found.
As we enter the massive entrance to the cave, we see a group of locals sitting in their makeshift bamboo shelters looking curiously at us. Next to them lie bamboo ladders and coiled-up ropes which I later find out are the traditional equipment used to harvest the nests.
The familiar pungent musty odour makes me shudder. The smell of what’s probably a million roaches scurrying around in the dark wafts in as I enter the cave.
Battling the fear that’s creeping up, I clench my fist and walk on. The sound of flapping bats gets louder as I move further into the dark space. It begins to feel like the walls are closing in on me. After a few metres, I can’t go any further. Katsaridaphobia (fear of roaches) and claustrophobia (fear of confined space) are really not a great combo to have. I admit defeat.
I step outside under the blazing sun. Looking up, I get to see why Sandakan is nicknamed “swiftlet haven”.
Among the world’s fastest flying birds, their narrow swept-back, scimitar-shaped wings allow them to whizz around, making dramatic dives and darts above my head.
The swiftlets (or its scientific name aerodramus fuciphagus or burung walet in Malay) is a tropical bird mostly found in South-East Asia.
Unlike most birds that use twigs, leaves or even feathers to build their nest, these birds build theirs using their own saliva.
The sticky gelatinous noodle-like fibres which hold the nest together and keep it attached to the cave are secreted by well-developed salivary glands in their mouth. This is the edible part which is highly sought-after by people who enjoy the taste and the health benefits they contain.
LEGEND HAS IT
Bird’s nest is not a new food fad. Its history dates all the way back to the 15th century when an admiral from the early Ming Dynasty encountered thunderstorms while sailing across the South-East Asian seas and got stranded on a Malay island. Lacking food supply, the admiral and his crew resorted to eating birds’ nests which they discovered on the cliffs.
They eventually grew energetic and gained healthy complexions after eating the nests for some time.
He brought back some as a gift for the emperor, proclaiming the wonders and benefits of the birds’ nests. Since then, this unusual food item has become a delicacy in traditional palace cuisine.
The admiral’s name was Laksamana Cheng Ho, who’s no stranger to the annals of Malayan history.
Other early writings containing the subject of birds’ rests were recorded during the Tang Dynasty. It’s said that birds’ nests featured in the daily diets of Princess Yang Kwei Fei and Empress Wu Zetian. Bird’s nest was also mentioned in Tang’s poems as an exquisite dish for generals.
The health benefits that the nests possess are indeed scientifically proven. In 1985, Professor Y.C Kong from Chinese University of Hong Kong discovered that consuming birds’ nests could stimulate the growth and division of cells as it carries Epidermis Growth Factor (EGF). EGF is known to regenerate cells, improve immune system and clear lung impurities.
According to traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, consuming bird’s nest soup can boost the immune system, gives you a clear complexion, and yes, you guessed it, also acts as an aphrodisiac! The last reason could be the reason why this dish can command a price up to thousands of dollars. Even so, the nests are always in high demand.
Malaysia is privileged to be the prime location for these birds. It takes a couple of birds to build one nest. However, with the increase in swiftlet population comes the greater responsibility of ensuring that these birds have a place to build their homes.
“When the cave is full, where can the rest of them go? They don’t use the same nest. They will build another. That’s why we’re building the swiftlet houses and the help obtained by AB Cahaya in building these houses is much appreciated,” says Brandon Liu, chief operating officer of CSBN.
The man behind AB Cahaya Sdn Bhd, Datu Mohd Faisal Datu is the third generation of birds’ nests trading in Sandakan. His family business has been operating a few lots in Gomantong Caves for more than 20 years.
Seeing the huge potential of swiftlet farming in Sandakan, Datu Mohd Faisal has devoted his life to the research and development of swiftlet farming. He is most knowledgeable in swiftlet-farm designs and swiftlet farming equipment, all of which are essential for a successful swiftlet-farming business.
“We hope there’ll be more efforts put in by the Government to position Sabah as the main exporter of birds’ nests to the world,” says Datu Mohd Faisal, adding that in Malaysia alone, the number of swiftlet houses have surged from an estimated 1,000 a decade ago to over 60,000 today.
PLAY BY THE RULES
Imported edible birds’ nests were banned in 2011 after health inspectors found excessive amounts of nitrite in a shipment from Malaysia.
It was reported last year that the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry set up a platform to ensure that raw and uncleaned edible birds’ nests exported to China comply with the regulations and meet requirements set under the protocol of inspection, quarantine and veterinary hygiene.
“It’s good for the industry to have stricter rules and regulations. Last time, just about anyone could farm swiftlets. Some even did it in shop lots. You wouldn’t know how many hands the nests got through before they reached customers. With us, you’ll know from which houses the nests come from,” explains 29-year-old Liu.
CSBN’s efforts to ensure the bird population is well-taken care of were lauded by wildlife department as well as Sabah’s Veterinary Services and Animal Industry Department.
“We provide consultancy for the traders. Our experienced personnel also conduct thorough tests by collecting samples from the nests and birds to ensure the birds are disease-free,” explains Jonie Yahia, a senior veterinary assistant attached to the latter department.
Brandon concludes: “Good management is very important to ensure the quality of the nests. We make sure the houses have the same conditions as the cave in terms of humidity and temperature. These birds are wild species. We don’t do any captive breeding. They can do whatever they want. We just provide a spot for them to build their houses. We also clean up after them so they can build new ones.”
After spending some time at Gomantong caves, we call it a day. As dusk settles, swarms of swiftlets can be seen returning to the cave. The demand for their nests may be rising but they’re not in any trouble — as long as they have a place to call home.