Take globs of bird saliva, a tasteless jelly of little nutritional value, plop it into a broth--and what do you get?
Bird’s nest soup.
For devotees, it’s a divine “caviar of the East,” a delicacy so extravagantly priced that some people kill and die over it. For critics, it’s a dish created through cruelty and endowed with spurious qualities like sexual enhancement by status-seeking Chinese.
The popularity of soup made from the nests of swiftlets continues to soar, depleting bird populations and sparking “birds nest wars” between concession-holders and the poachers and tourist operators who enter their areas.
“They are very nasty people. They’ve been shooting at people for centuries,” says John Gray, an American who ran afoul of the powerful collectors of Phang-nga Bay, where swiftlets make their nests in the caves of spectacular limestone islands.
Calling it “extortion,” Gray’s kayaking venture initially refused to pay a $2.75-a-head fee demanding by the collectors, who claimed the canoeists were disturbing the nests and thus eating into their profits.
Gray, whose Sea Canoe company has won several environmental awards, believes the collectors were behind death threats against him and the near-fatal shooting of his operations manager in 1998. Recently, Gray had to give in or risk being blown out of the waters of Phang-nga Bay.
This area of southern Thailand and similar environments in Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia are home to swiftlets--sparrow-like birds that laboriously fashion cup-shaped nests for their offspring from glutinous saliva.
Attached high on cave ceilings, the nests are gathered by workers who must climb rickety bamboo ladders. Injuries and death from falls are not uncommon.
Overharvesting occurs. Nests are snatched away even before eggs are laid, or baby birds are sometimes thrown away, acts that are heatedly criticized by animal welfare activists.
From the caves of Southeast Asia, millions of nests are sent to Chinese communities around the world, with Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan the top consumers.
Diners at places like Hong Kong’s Fook Lam Moon restaurant are willing to pay dearly for the highest-quality nests--$58 per bowl of soup.
Some eat birds’ nests, which are usually mixed with chicken broth, spices or sweet sauces, to show off wealth and status. But many believe they rejuvenate skin, cure lung disease and increase sex drive.
These claims are dubious at best. Chemical analysis has shown the soup is of low nutritive value. But like tiger penises, rhino horns and other exotic animal parts, the nests are regarded by many Chinese as medicinal and tonic. The demand for such products has devastated endangered wildlife around the globe.
Alex Yau, at the Hong Kong office of the World Wide Fund for Nature, says the territory imported 985 tons of swiftlet nests valued at $700 million between 1992 and 1998.
A sizable percentage of that was transshipped to China, where nests were first eaten some 1,000 years ago and where Yau says consumption is bound to increase with growing affluence.
Experts say greater demand and higher prices have caused overharvesting and thus declines in swiftlet populations, and also encouraged nest farming and even trade in fake nests made from gum extract.
Navjot Sodhi, a biologist at the National University of Singapore, says the number of swiftlets may have declined by as much as 73% in some areas of Southeast Asia between 1962 and 1990 because of nest overharvesting and destruction of forests.
A push by some Western nations to protect swiftlets under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has failed due mostly to opposition by Southeast Asian countries where so much money is at stake.
Profits are so big that villagers in Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere have lured swiftlets into abandoned houses. One such nest farm in southern Thailand features tape-recorded sounds of a waterfall to entice the birds.
Villagers also poach on nest concession areas, arguing that locals get no benefit from the business while concession holders and governments that collect tax on the nest harvest grow rich.
Clashes between licensed collectors and locals resulted in the deaths of 14 Thai villagers in the 1990s.
In his futile fight against the nest collectors of Phang-nga Bay, Gray pointed out that they were illegally demanding fees within a national park.
But one Thai sea canoe operator, Thiti Mokapun, said he knew it was fruitless because of the collectors’ powerful political connections.
“We wanted to fight with John too. We did not want to pay,” he said. “But we realized that in Thailand, often there are forces more powerful than the government.”
Among them are the gatherers of bird saliva.