Among being the home to the world’s 7th best beach and South east Aisa’s only active volcano, Andaman is also home to another wonderful creature – the edible nest Swiftlet. Around 12 cm long and weighing about 18 gms, this tiny brownish bird lives in the limestone caves of Andaman.
Andaman has two species of Swiftlets – the echolocating edible-nest Swiftlet and the Glossy Swiftlet. Nesting deep within caves and poorly lit areas, the Swiftlets use echolocation for navigation with sound waves as they bounce off the surface. The Swiftlets tend to choose their nesting location primarily to escape their natural predators. In a study conducted between 1997 and 2009 that observed the Swiftlets, it was noted that owls, raptors, snakes, geckoes, bats, cats, rat cockroaches, lice, flies, giant crickets, and centipedes are all predators to this tiny bird.
What’s special about the bird?
As the name suggests, the Swiftlet builds a nest that is not only edible for humans but is considered a rare delicacy. The nest, which is built out of the bird’s saliva solidifies into a 6cm long 1.5cm deep dish-like structure which eventually holds two eggs. Each pair of Swiftlets spit about 10gm of saliva to build the nest. The salivary glands enlarge during the nest-building process. When exposed to sunlight, the white nest gets a golden hue. Because of this, the nest is often referred to as white gold. It is also priced like it – at a whopping $4000 per kilogram.
The nest was discovered to be an aphrodisiac and a delicacy in Chinese cuisines. Soup made from the nest is considered to be especially tasty.
This very unique feature of the bird has lead to its downfall too. Leaving aside all natural predators, the biggest predator for the edible-nest Swiftlet turned out to be humans who went on an unbridled harvesting spree. Sometimes not considering the size and age of the chicks the nests are harvested for profit. In the 90s, illegal nest harvesting resulted in almost 80% of their population being wiped out. The Swiftlet was eventually added to our endangered species list.
Swiftlet and conservation initiatives
Briefly during 2009, the National Board of Wildlife de- listed the endangered Swiftlet nests to be legally sold. Their idea was that if the harvesting was made legal, people would be more careful not to destroy the species to fulfil their short term greed and instead invest in the survival of the species for long term gains.
There are a few scientists from the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, who’ve been attached to the Swiftlet conservation project well over a decade.
Stalwart ornithologist Dr. Ravi Sankaran headed the conservation project by converting nest poachers into protectors. These locals were told to man the caves and protect them from poaching. As a reward, they could eventually get a share of the actual sale of the nests. The caves were monitored round the clock during this period which helped the Swiftlet population to grow to a good extent.
The artificial nesting program for the Edible Nest Swiftlet
In order to raise the population of Swiftlets, it was observed that they could be taken out of their current environment deep within the jungle to a new, more-urban set up for sustainable harvesting of nests and aiding conservation efforts. It was observed that the new nest options wouldn’t work unless they were in the flying path of current Swiftlets. To counter this, eggs of the edible nest swiftlet were transferred to the Glossy Swiftlet in their artificial homes. The Glossy swiftlet would then act as foster parents and raise the fledgelings as their own. The young edible nest swiftlets are then expected to return here to start their own family.
A recent report in a local newspaper though still suggests that the prospects for this little bird are bleak unless the poaching is curbed and they are allowed to repopulate naturally.