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Bird's Nest Collectors of Koh Petra Marine Park

By Simon Ramdsen

February 8, 2010

Andaman Sea birds’ nests have been consumed in China for at least 1,500 years and their export by the collectors of the Malay Peninsula and southern Thailand was well established by the early 18th century. Nowadays the largest market for them is Hong Kong, which consumes 100 tonnes of them, worth THB 1,000,000,000, every year. Black nests sell for an average of THB 10,000 / kilo, whilst perfect white nests can fetch as much as THB 50,000 / kilo. 

The nest of the swiftlet Collocalia Fuciphaga is highly prized by the Chinese as a powerful pick-me-up tonic and is typically ingested at the banquets of the rich in the form of bird’s nest soup. The nests themselves are tiny translucent cups about the size of a small egg. They are made by the male swiftlet from glutinous threads of its own saliva, which it weaves into a cup that dries to become thin and translucent like fine porcelain. Chinese parents feed bird’s nest soup, cooked with chicken broth or coconut milk, to their children in the belief that it will improve their complexions, promote growth and generally act as a tonic. Recent research has indeed shown that the nests, which taste rather like noodles, contain a water-soluble glycoprotein that may promote cell division in the immune system. 

The low-down 

A bird's nest is made in a similar way to fibreglass, with the bird laying lots of threads on top of each other. A sustainable supply of birds’ nests is ensured and the survival of the species is protected because nests are collected only when empty. The most productive island for nests is Koh Petra, from which over 100 kg of nests are collected 3 times in a good year. After the chicks have flown away the mother will eat the nest in order to replenish her energy supply. The collectors, of whom there are 60 in the Koh Petra Marine Park, must find the nest before the mother eats it. Nest collecting is skilled and dangerous work, high up on the ceilings of the caves which abound on the Thai coast and its offshore islands. The intrepid collector shins barefoot up rickety trellises of bamboo scaffolding, ropes and bridges, tapping as he goes to make sure the bamboo is sound. He lights his way in the black caves with a torch of bark soaked in resin held between his teeth and uses a special three-pronged tool called a rada to harvest the nests. 

To use bare hands to pick a nest displeases and angers the gods. If a collector accidentally touches a nest he will descend at once, taking it as a sign from the gods that it would be dangerous for him to continue climbing that day. During the collecting season, from February to May, the collectors work without food from sunrise until sunset, when the caves fill with flocks of bats and roosting swiftlets.

Sometimes nest-gatherers have to swim underwater to reach a submerged cavern or to squeeze through tiny blowhole passages to reach a cave’s ceiling. The caves themselves are often spectacular cathedrals of stalagmites and stalactites, covered in thick carpets of guano and seething with hordes of golden cockroaches. 

Big business 

Birds’ nest collecting is a lucrative business and is tightly controlled. The collectors have an exclusive government concession to collect nests in the Marine Park. The nest-collection concession, which is auctioned every 5 years, costs about THB 100,000,000. The nests are so precious that they are protected by guards during the collection season, in order to deter robbers who might steal them. In spite of this protection, guards have been bribed and nests robbed. One miscreant, for whom the consequences of discovery were very adverse, was detected by his sudden show of wealth, which he had spent on gold necklaces and pick-up trucks. 

Western Climbers Help Out 

Western rock-climbers including Trevor Massiah, Steve Findley, Mike Weitzman and Don Donavon have secured anchors inside some of the caves, so allowing collectors to shimmy up the ropes in total safety. The Koh Lao Liang collectors told this editor that the most useful rope put up for their benefit in 2006 was the rope that Steve and Dan put up on Lao Liang South. The rope put up by Trev and Mike was in an impressive and almost implausibly impossible place, but not terribly useful, as the birds had deserted the cave. 

Mike described the process of putting up the anchor: 

“At one point I saw Trev facing a 20 metre pendulum swing if he fell. What’s more, the only thing that would then prevent him plummeting 30 metres into the sea was an inadequately small metal nut jammed into a crack and then attached to the rope with a karabiner. I was more fearful for the life of my leader than I had ever been before, or have been since. I was possibly about to become an involuntary landing pad for 80kg of hard-as-limestone Antiguan/Bristolian meat and gristle. Trev was attempting to throw a sling around a thin spike of rock out of his sight, so that he could then secure the rope to the sling. He was blindly and desperately searching for the rock-spike while barely clinging on to rock that was greasy with dirty bat guano. 

I was securing Trevor by feeding his rope through a small metal belay (braking) device: if he fell I would apply the brake. Doing this would arrest his fall, but only provided that the inadequately small metal nut wasn’t ripped loose. This was likely to happen if Trev fell.

I also was inadequately secured, by a metal hook poorly placed in a shallow pocket of rock. I knew this hook would pop out of the pocket if I fell. 

Trev, in his usual understated British manner said, “I might be in for a bit of a swing here.” 

I thought, “If Trev comes off, we’re in for a mid-air cuddle and then a swim – and I don’t at all fancy attempting to swim all tangled up in rope and gear.” 

Luckily the blind placement held, so Mike avoided his swim - and his cuddle. Unsurprisingly, Thai nest-harvesters like the safety that Western rock-climbers and their technology have brought to their jobs. In the past between 2 and 5 people died collecting nests every 5 years; most years one of the 60 collectors died.  

The usual cause was that the bamboo broke or came out of the hole into which it had been jammed. Prior to collecting, birds’ nest climbers pray and brush their hair. They are forbidden to eat island animals, such as snake, iguana and birds, because these animals belong to the island. In addition they are supposed to remain celibate (that’s the collectors, not the animals).

For more on Thai adventure sports, snorkelling, kayaking and island-hopping, check out www.andamanadventures.com and www.aonang.com.

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