Cruelty served in a dish | Sunday Observer

Cruelty served in a dish

5 November, 2017

Food patrons travelling to the Far East, at least those who could part with a small fortune to experience the famed delicacy must have come across bird’s nest soup, in the high end restaurants of the region. This relatively plain looking, thick, pale yellow soup is one of the most expensive food items in the world, and is dubbed, ‘Caviar of the East.’ It is believed, the edible bird’s nest, the main ingredient of the soup, has rejuvenating properties, medicinal properties, acts as an aphrodisiac, gives flawless skin and enhances beauty. However, these are yet to be scientifically proven.

This apparently innocent looking dish has a darker tale in its backdrop, from the process of nest extraction to the illegal smuggling of it through international borders. These nests are built by swifts, using their saliva to stick the nests together. According to Environmentalist and Attorney-at-Law, Jagath Gunawardana, there are about 80 species of swifts, of which, the nests of five species are eaten.

Not so delicate

“Of these five, two species make nests that are white in colour, due to the white colouring of their saliva. These white nests have the highest demand.

They are produced by the indigenous species found in Sri Lanka and India, the Indian Edible Nest Swift (Collocalia unicolour),” Gunawardana says.

The Indian Edible Nest Swift is a small bird, about 12 cm in length, displaying brown coloured plumage. They are a cave dwelling species, and the nests could be found high up in caves and tunnels, far from the reach of humans.

These nests, the size of a small lump of clay, are made of muco proteins present in the bird’s saliva.

Protected species

Gunawardana says, due to the harvesting of the nests of these species, there is a threat of their populations decreasing.

Accordingly, Sri Lanka was the first country to protect this species under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance of 1937, as amended in 1964. The protected status was further enhanced by amendments in 1993 and 2009, he said.

Despite these measures, the illegal removal of nests and smuggling them to other countries still take place.

On October 30, the Biodiversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Branch of Sri Lanka Customs arrested a Chinese national attempting to smuggle out 900 grams of edible birds’ nests, at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake.

Illicit trading and smuggling

Speaking of the incident, Biodiwversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Branch, Director General, R. D. A. M.G. Niyarepola said, although the weight of the nests are less, it included about six to seven nests, pure white, and probably removed before the eggs were laid.

“The nests get unclean and lose their pure white colour when eggs are laid and the chicks hatched. So, illicit traders tend to remove these nests before the eggs are laid,” he said.

Niyarepola said, on questioning the sources, from which the Chinese obtained the nests, the Chinese national disclosed that the nests were obtained from the Mattakkuliya area, by his sister, living in Sri Lanka, at present.

“This is the fourth time this particular individual is leaving Sri Lanka. We suspect he has smuggled out edible birds’ nests prior to this occasion, as well,” he added.

Niyarepola said, smuggling edible nests do not always take place as an organized crime, there are isolated incidents as well where individuals remove the nests and sell them. He says, nests are also smuggled via courier services, which makes it difficult to be detected by Customs officials.

He said, this is the second time this year that an arrest has been made at the airport. In 2016, there had been three incidents and a total of 10 kg worth edible nests being taken into custody.

He said, all consignments are destroyed by burning. Niyarepola pointed out, these edible nests are generally smuggled to Hong Kong, which serves as a hub for smuggled edible birds’ nests.

However, according to Gunawardana, a higher percentage of these edible nests are consumed by the United States and the European Union, with a very low percentage consumed in South East Asia.

Gunawardana says, 1kg of processed nest, with the debris removed, is valued at US$ 3,000 to 4,000, and is one of the highest priced illegal trade items in the world.

An act of cruelty

He said, experts have noted that if the illicit smuggling continues at this rate, for another five or six years, the species will be lost from the country.

“There need to be more awareness among the locals, of the importance of not destroying the nesting sites of these birds. Also, this is a consequence of poverty, in the rural areas,” he explained. During nesting seasons, from January to June and from August to October, these species build their nests. Typically, it takes between two to three months to complete a nest.

“Collectors do not wait until the chicks leave. They prefer the nest as fresh as possible, hence, they collect them, throwing out the eggs and the chicks. Swifts cannot perch on the ground, so the helpless chicks are eaten alive by hordes of ants that are attracted to the broken eggs,” Gunawardana explains.

The Adult Indian Edible Nest Swift spends the day flying and feeds on flying insects. Gunawardana says, due to their disability to perch, they cannot reach the chicks on the floor to feed them, so that they perish in starvation.

The evolution of edible bird nest trade in Sri Lanka

According to Gunawardana, the collection of edible-nests in Sri Lanka is of recent origin, and dates back from the mid 19th Century. He says, “The first record of nest collection is by Dr. Edward Fredrick Kelaart in his book published in 1852. He has recorded that nests have been collected from a cave in Pidurutalagala and made to a very nutritious soup for invalids in Nuwara Eliya. Thereafter, John Still recorded the collection of nests in Jungle Tide.

Also, in his book, Wild Ceylon, R L Spittel has mentioned edible birds’ nests in the Eastern Province being an item in the barter system that prevailed between the Veddahs and the merchants of the day”.

Gunawardena says, after this period, the practice of trading nests was not detected from 1960 until 1993, when the illicit trading raised its nefarious head. Customs arrested a large consignment, with the ban of the removal of nesting and sale in Malaysia and Indonesia.

“Although illegal smuggling of nests was carried out by organized rings in the past, in the current context, the mode of operations is mainly via expatriates travelling through BIA, who acted as one time couriers. This is more complex to monitor and detect, than a ring of operaters,” he says.

Legal measures

According to Section 30 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, it is an offence to kill, wound, take any bird, destroy or keep in possession, any bird, nest, egg or parts of these. According to Section 40, it is an offence to export or attempt to export any bird, part, eggs or nests of any species of animals without a permit issued by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Gunawardana said, an important feature of the Flora Protection Ordinance is that, under section 40, Customs has been empowered to act as if it is also an offence under the Customs Ordinance, and impose penalties under the Customs Ordinance, in addition to the penalties imposed under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Further, any offence under Section 30 carries a penalty of Rs 20,000 to 50,000 or and a jail term of two to five years.

Gunawardana notes, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora, has so far failed to provide any protection to these species.

No scientific base for health benefits

Today, the preparation of edible birds’ nests takes different forms. In addition to being cooked in stews, these are also made into stews, stuffing, drinks and suspensions. Speaking of the anticipated health and medicinal benefits of edible birds’ nests, Gunawardana says, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that nests provide these benefits.

“Muco proteins, which make up these nests, are known to have little nutritional value. Scientists have found that the nest consists of 50 per cent proteins and 25 per cent carbohydrates, with a caloric value of only 4.4.

He added, the nests show a reluctance to dissolve in water, hence, they need to be cooked in pressure cookers in order to dissolve them, which greatly reduces the nutritional value. Therefore, it seems, traditional lore is the driving force of this smuggling racket, with the high demand for edible nests and the subsequent low supply, sustaining the market dynamics.