Archive for February 3rd, 2006

Nest harvest in the Baram

Nest Harvest in the Baram (The Star Online)
FOR several hundred years, ancient birds’ nests caves in the middle Baram region have provided sustenance for a handful of aristocratic Kayan families. 

I have heard about birds’ nests and even visited the Niah caves, but not the caves of the Middle Baram repute
As such, it was exciting to be the guest of George Jalong Nawan to visit his family caves at Tuking in the Sungei Kejin area – about eight hours by boat up the Baram River. 

The caves once belonged to his famous ancestor, Penghulu Lalang Batang of Long Laput, who was called the “dollar princess” by Sir Malcolm Macdonald, the Commissioner General of South-East Asia in his book Borneo People. 

She was reputed to be one (if not the only) of the wealthiest people in the Baram during pre-war days. 

She was so famous that even the third Rajah Vyner Brooke visited her longhouse in 1940. Others such as Macdonald and Sarawak Governor Arden-Clarke followed suit after the war. 

“The cave was passed down the family line to my grandmother Tijan, who was the daughter of Penghulu Lalang, then down to my mother Penghulu Bungan Arong,” said George. 

In fact, George and several other families from Long Laput as well as neighbouring Sungei Dua (his mother’s new longhouse) have inherited several caves. 

“Our family has depended on birds’ nests as a source of revenue since the days of our forefathers. Less than 100 families own birds’ nest caves in the Anau, Kejin, Meterek, Sepayang, Maloi, Temala and Salai areas in middle Baram,” said George, the eldest of Bungan’s seven children. 

A personal friend of George, Dr Lim Chan Koon, who visited the Tuking caves in 1996 with the Earl of Cranbrooke (the first person to study swiflets) said the caves were among the best-conserved birds’ nest caves in the middle Baram. 

He said the white-nest swiftlet population was at an all-time low when he and Lord Cranbrooke conducted research on the caves. 

Giving me a quick lesson on the business of swiftlets and birds’ nests, he said the middle Baram was famous for white nests – the most expensive of the birds’ nests – with seven large caves and between 30 and 50 small ones. 

“There are four types of swiftlets in Sarawak – white nest, black nest, mossy nest and glossy. All except the mossy birds’ nests can be harvested,” said Dr Lim, who wrote the book Swiflets of Borneo: Builders of Edible Nests (2002). 

Harvests are carried out by expert climbers and a dozen or so labourers. 
“In middle Baram, the Orang Ulu communities still practice close kinship during harvesting when the aristocrats (maren) involved the commoners (panyin) from the longhouse,” added Dr Lim.  

At Tuking, the caves come under the charge of Geng Apui, 60, who has taken care of the family business for 40 years. 

“It can be dangerous scaling the caves alone because accidents do happen. Several years ago, a poacher fell to his death in one of the caves,” said Geng.  

“There are also creatures like centipedes and scorpions in the dark. They won’t kill you, but a little sting is good enough to bring tears to your eyes,” he teased while taking us on a tour of the cave complex. 

When we arrived in mid-December, Geng and his crew had already harvested the caves – possibly their last harvest before allowing the birds time to breed. They breed thrice a year and produce six fledglings of which only half survive. 

The collectors harvest the caves about five times a year, allowing the birds to breed between the months of February and July. 

Because of this, the bird population at Tuking increased from about 2,000 in the mid-1990s to almost 5,000. The middle Baram population itself has increased from 60,000 in 1997 to 100,000. 
“Natural nests are in big demand and this is why the white nests fetch a very good price. It can be anything between RM6,000 and RM10,000 a kilo (RM6,000 being the price for freshly collected nests and RM10,000 the retail price for processed nests),” said Dr Lim, who was happy that sustainable harvesting had resulted in good harvests. 

This is a far cry from prices of yesteryears – $14 per kilo in 1884, $25 per kilo in 1939, $71 per kilo in the 1960s and RM400 per kilo in the 1980s. 

Dr Lim, who is attached to Sarawak Forestry Corporation (his PhD thesis was on sustainable harvesting of white nests in the Baram), said the latest worry was that some owners had given up their caves, which have been turned into quarries. 

“The bird population has increased by leaps and bounds, and if they are patient, the birds will reoccupy the abandoned caves. So, don’t give up caves for short term profit.” 

As to the future of the business and the swiftlet population, Dr Lim said the number of birds had increased over the years. 

“What we would like people to do is to venture into modernising the birds’ nest industry by building special concrete structures to house the birds. The initial cost is high, but in the long run, the people will get more for money for their efforts and the bird population will increase,” he said. 

Dr Lim said that Malaysia should follow the footsteps of Indonesia which produces about 80% of the world’s birds’ nests (Malaysia produces about 10%) and the business is worth is about RM4bil.  

“At one artificial birds’ nest complex in Medan, they produce as much as several thousand kilos per harvest. The potential is so great that people are building artificial nests (swiflet houses) even in towns,” he added. 

Recently, the Federal Government approved and acknowledged that farming of birds’ nests could be turned into a major industry, added Dr Lim. 

“There is a lot to gain from it from conservation to benefits for the local community. 

George himself hopes his family business will expand, and if the finances permit, he too will try to invest in artificial caves. 

“Right now, we are happy with whatever little we can collect from the old caves. But who knows, we may try something new. After all, the times are changing.”  

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