Blazes at bird's nest caves leave industry in soup

Blazes at bird's nest caves leave industry in soup

My friends call me a foodie because of my boundless passion for hunting delicious food and trying new menus. Even so, there are only a few dishes that I intentionally skip -- among them are shark fin and bird's nest soups.

My reasons are simple: I am revolted by dishes or ingredients that come from unscrupulous harvesting and cultivation. Having animals killed for food is already savage enough to such a level that we do not need to add other diabolical harvesting methods to the issue.

For shark fin soup, the pricey fin comes from an atrocious way of fishing. To get a fin, a whole shark is caught specifically for it. The shark is thrown back into the sea after fishermen have cut off its fin.

With bird's nest soup, harvesting in caves in the southern part of Thailand has involved armed security guards.

Also, I have never bought into the notion that certain delicacies are a superfood that comes with miraculous healing effects and life-preserving properties.

The bird's nest, taken from swiftlet bird saliva, is used to make a shelter for hatching eggs. It is considered a pricey delicacy, often known as the "caviar of the East" or "white gold".

Birds' nests collected from caves are sold to customers at 10,000–85,000 baht per kilogramme, depending on their quality, while rare, red-coloured nests -- which come from blood in the saliva of the swiftlet bird -- can fetch for at least 100,000 baht/kg. There are birds' nests from special farms too, but these fetch lower prices.

Needless to say, bird's nest thefts have been reported for decades, and companies spend a lot of money hiring security guards to protect the caves.

For decades, there have been many complaints from tourists who say they have been threatened by these security guards while kayaking or climbing near the caves.

The most outrageous case was a 1992 massacre committed by bird's nest cave security guards in Phatthalung province.

In this incident, the guards shot dead 10 suspected thieves whose bodies were found floating in the sea. Two years later, a security guard hired by the same company shot dead two other suspected thieves.

A gruesome story about a prized soup, isn't it?

These events led to the revising of the Bird's Nest Concession Act, to regulate companies and give the industry a better image.

Yet, news last week about a big fire at seven bird's nest caves in Phatthalung reminds us of how shady this business is.

No one died during the incident, but the fire completely destroyed a swiftlet bird habitat and killed hundreds of thousands of little chicks too young to fly from the caves. The fire happened early this month, after the final round of harvesting. It was reported that the seven caves had contained 500,000 swiftlet nests.

Police are now looking into the mysterious fire and suspect a conflict between security guards and companies might have played a role. Local media reported an argument between security guards and police.

The authorities must look into this case because those caves are state property. The fire at the caves also speaks volumes about the state's failure to take care of wildlife.

All bird's nest caves in Thailand are supervised by committees chaired by provincial governors with members representing private bird nest companies, local and national officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

So, an investigation must be launched with transparency.

The fire at the seven bird's nest caves means the natural habitat of birds, which provide revenue for the province have been destroyed. At this stage, locals are afraid the swiftlets might not return to these caves.

Again, I am not a fan of this delicacy. However, I firmly believe that consumers and businesses have the duty to support ethical harvesting as much as possible.

I hope the authority that oversees the enforcement of the Bird's Nest Concession Act and companies that profit from these creatures will establish an auditing board to inspect supply chains, make sure these caves and birds are well protected and ensure that collectors are fairly rewarded.

As for bird's nest soup lovers, hopefully, news of the fire at the bird nest caves will make their dish a little harder to swallow.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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