Nature Blog Network Future Earth: Swiftlet soup for supper?

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Swiftlet soup for supper?

Rather an avian flavour to this blog recently so here’s one more post that takes that literally. Birds nest soup has been a menu option in China for over a thousand years, although it went out of f(l)avour politically for a while. Now the demand from the Chinese diaspora is huge, and over-exploitation of the traditional supply from caves across south-east Asia edged the nest building swiftlets onto the CITES menu a few years ago.

One of many memorable Attenborough moments – the sainted Sir Dave, feet traditionally planted in bat and bird guano, peering into the upper reaches of Malaysian caves as the local nest collectors risked life and limb to secure “white gold”, the set saliva of the male swiflets that is meant to protect the eggs and nestlings. The birds can produce three nests per breeding season so collecting only the first two can allow one brood to survive and sustain the supply.

Sadly though, the trade has become just too profitable. Where there’s muck (can’t get that image of the cave floor out of my mind!) there’s money … but where there’s money there’s muck too. Over-exploitation, trade rackets – demand exceeding supply leads to a $60 price tag on a single bowl of soup in Hong Kong. Its big business and people will kill to protect it.

Enter the entrepreneur. Colonies of twittering swiftlets that have set up in town houses are now managed for productivity; even though some of the techniques are mean (“Midnight Music” post – 20th February), they are cosseted as valuable residents. Have a look at these photos though – new build along the coast of Borneo is all for the birds – the giveaway is the large flat sides with evenly spaced ventilation holes. Bordellos for working birds. Swiftlet Hiltons – except its build your own bed, at least twice. Populations are increasing though, so just who is exploiting who?

P.S. And why? Chinese scientists have recently determined that the active ingredient (thought to have a range of medicinal properties) is destroyed as the nests are prepared for consumption. Ah well.

P.P.S. There is a nasty sting in this tale however. The birds eat insects from their surroundings, and not surprisingly the most sought-after nests are ones where the foraging is from natural environments. Another ecosystem service at risk?


Chris T said...

I get the impression you are not the biggest fan of the chinese government's environmental and social policies!

Arjay said...

What environmental and social policies might those be - global "search and destroy"? I would love to have my mind changed, but the evidence indicates otherwise.

bio said...

P.S. For a more optimistic view see John MacKinnon's responses on NYT forum "China - choking on growth" December 2007.