Swiftlet nests: Nothing to spit at

By Sheridan Mahavera

SITIAWAN, April 7 — When swiflet nest tycoon Lim Theam Siew talks about the state of this million-dollar industry, it’s difficult not to feel frustrated.

According to studies commissioned by the Malaysian Bird’s Nest Merchant’s Association, Malaysia lies at the centre of the world’s swiflet golden triangle. In other words, if swiflet nests were like oil reserves, Malaysia would be Saudi Arabia.

Better still, there is an inexhaustible demand for the nests among China’s two billion people every year.

So why should Lim, the association’s president, be exasperated? Because in his efforts to help the government tap into this gold mine and regulate the industry, he only hears encouraging noises from the lowliest officials to a former prime minister. Unlike his birds, these chirps produce nothing.

As a result, the industry exists in a muddle of unchecked greed, messy expansions, public ignorance and bureaucratic two-facedness. Examples of this are numerous, says Lim.

Perhaps the most infuriating is the fact that no Malaysian agency issues food safety certificates for exported nests, claims Lim.

In other words, since merchants export almost all of their nests to China they have had to go to Singapore to get the certification.

“Malaysians produce the nests but we have to go to Singapore to get it certified to be exported. Can you believe this?”

Also, when harvesters convert abandoned shops in urban areas into swiflet motels, the public invariably complains about the noise, the fear of viruses and the hygiene. So the government comes out with so-called guidelines stating that motels can only be built in rural areas.

“What the public and the government don’t understand is this bird is very choosy about where it wants to build its nest. It chooses only places where there are no predators such as rats, snakes and pests, which is why it is drawn to urban areas.

“The motels for these birds are continuously kept dust- and insect-free otherwise we won’t get quality nests. The droppings are collected everyday as they make good ammonia fertiliser,” Lim explains.

“If you move a hotel, you will lose up to 80 per cent of your birds.”

There is the perception that the swiflet business is like rearing other birds such as chickens, ducks and songbirds which are filthy and which fuels health concerns.

Essentially, the guidelines do not reflect a thorough understanding of swiflet behaviour as no ministry appears interested in studying the bird.

“Without a comprehensive reference on the bird’s behaviour, its genetics, the content of its waste, potential for disease, the nest’s actual nutritional value, how are we supposed to regulate the industry?,” Lim asks.

In his interview with The Malaysian Insider in his home office, Lim produces sheaves of paper detailing his quest to get the government to treat the industry like it does oil palm, rubber or padi.

There are reports of meetings he has had with every animal-related agency under the government from wildlife to veterinary services to agriculture.

There are also plans and studies he and his association has come up with based on best practises in Indonesia and Thailand, which have been sent to the government for further action. And yet the interest he’s received is piddling.

Despite being in the middle of the world swiflet population zone, Malaysia produces only a woeful five per cent of the total number of nests, globally. 95 per cent is produced by Indonesia.

At RM2,000 to RM4,000 per kg for unprocessed nests, the industry attracts a lot of interest and it is estimated that there are about 60,000 harvesters in Malaysia.

“The problem is, only 20 per cent of them are successful. It is still largely hit-and miss because again, we don’t fully understand the bird.

“What we need is a body to look after the industry, something like a Malaysian Oil Palm Board for bird’s nest otherwise it will go to waste.”

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