While traveling in Thailand, S and I spent one day (Thanksgiving Day to be precise) on a boat tour of Koh Phi Phi, a group of 3 islands in the Andaman Sea. The main point of the journey was to snorkel and see more of the sea. The tour we took made 9 stops, one of them to some limestone caves where the wallets nest.
As you can see, the area was stunning. You could see so many fish swimming in the water. Distracting, however, was what we learned about the caves and the massacre taking place inside. Inside, the wallets build their nests—nests that people have found to be edible and Chinese and Thai folklore says to be the key to eternal life. The nests are edible as they are built completely from the saliva of the male. Only three nests can be built—and humans are harvesting them to make “bird’s nest soup” and sell at exurbanite prices. But the cost isn’t the only price… if the birds have no nests, then they have no place to lay their young, and the species has no future.
One website I found explained:
As mentioned before, pickers sometimes harvest up to three nests from each bird in a season. The rationale is that the third and final nest built by the walet is left untouched by the workers so that the birds can lay their eggs. Unfortunately though, when pickers find themselves facing increasingly high demands – even for the diminished quality of “black” nests – they resort to harvesting the birds’ last nests. It is difficult to say exactly how many walet eggs and hatchlings have been lost to pickers discarding them from their nests before they had the opportunity to grow, but we can guess the number is staggering. Rooney notes, “A local source familiar with the bird’s nest industry said there are only one-third as many nests as there were a decade ago, and the swiftlets have abandoned many caves.” If the bird’s nest picking industry continues down the path of over-harvesting the nests, it may soon wipe itself out with the extinction of the entire walet population.
It may be difficult for some to reconcile the over-indulgent demand for Bird’s Nest Soup with the harsh realities behind the industry that supplies it. The walet nest’s status in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a powerful healing tool is a great selling point to an entire market of consumers, but some may be drawn to the delicacy simply because of the darker circumstances behind its harvesting. Ultimately, a single bowl of this mild and oddly textured soup can cost up to $100 in the US, and the price continues to rise as a wealthier class of consumer gains power in China and abroad. Fortunately, some in the industry are beginning to take notice of the very real prospect of depleted natural supplies, and the stigma of maintaining a corrupt industry. The future of Bird’s Nest Soup may depend on developing technologies like urban nest-farming, and other techniques that secure the wellbeing of both the birds and nest-pickers. Only time will tell if this white gold is worth its weight in controversy.
If they were to find a technology to harvest the nests while continuing the species, I probably would not me quite so anti. For now, I am aghast at the practice and by the people who continue to create the demand by buying this soup.