Tiny birds and dwindling treasure

The dark, dangerous world of Thailand's bird-nest industry

by Sarah Rooney

BANGKOK — Imagine for a moment that you are an edible-nest swiftlet. You are a dusky bird, tiny enough to fit in the palm of a hand. In southern Thailand, where you live, you soar above the turquoise waters and jungle-clad islands of the Andaman Sea. You build your nests inside island caves hidden by wave-battered cliffs. You do this because it is what edible-nest swiftlets have been doing for thousands of years.

Kiew, an 11-year-old gatherer, rests after climbing the 120-high-meter cliff wall of Yai cave, Waen Island, in search of bird’s nests.

The nests you build are so delicate that one 17th-century adventurer declared they were made from the foam of the cresting waves. You use a white gel secreted from your salivary glands and spend almost a month weaving a nest the size and shape of a porcelain teacup. The nest is attached to the highest, darkest crevices of the cave with a substance as hard as cement. Yet when you return to lay your eggs, your nest is gone.

It is a few months before you are able to build a second nest. It is not as perfect as the first. But soon this nest, too, disappears. It is only with your third attempt that you are able to lay eggs. Sometimes, though, the nest vanishes along with the unhatched eggs. And sometimes you come back to find the nest gone and your chicks smashed on the rocks far below.

What you don’t know is that your nests are a highly sought-after commodity. They are shipped around the globe and stewed into gourmet soups for Chinese diners. Some say the soup can aid recovery from consumptive diseases; others think it does wonders for the skin or can stave off old age or even death.

Your nest is so valuable, in fact, that people will kill each other for it.

In Thailand, the business of bird nests is violent and utterly ruthless. Numerous unsolved murders have been linked to it. Bird-nest companies are granted complete autonomy by the Thai government on scores of islands. They protect their “treasure islands” with private armies who booby-trap cave entrances and shoot at anyone who comes near. As a result, tourists are forced to pay protection money and local fishermen, chased from their traditional fishing grounds, have lost their livelihood.

Bird-nest companies are notoriously secretive. Few, including the Thai government, have any idea what happens in these island fiefdoms. There is evidence that harsh collecting methods are decimating swiftlet colonies, yet conservation officials are barred access to the islands. These powerful and well-connected organizations pay off authorities with “white envelopes” of cash and intimidate others with threats and guns.

Almost everyone interviewed for this story was scared to talk. “If I told you what I know I wouldn’t live much longer,” said one man. Another person who has spoken out against a powerful bird-nest company has had to move four times because of death threats. “It’s a dark business,” says one former nest collector.

Historical view

Bird-nest concessions have always been lucrative. They began in Thailand in 1750, when a Chinese merchant begged the Thai king for a license to collect nests on two islands. In exchange, the merchant offered his wife, children, slaves, properties and 50 cases of tobacco. (The king granted the concession, refusing the people and properties but keeping the tobacco.) Today the Thai government gives some five companies concessions to collect nests on over 140 islands. The export of around 9,000 kg of nests per year generates tax revenue of almost 1 billion baht ($23.8 million).

The curse of the baby birds haunts Libong Island, a rocky, forested mass just off the coast of Trang district in southern Thailand. Libong has historically supplied bird-nest collectors for islands all over the Andaman Sea. Pressured to meet the high demand, the collectors are forced to pick nests with baby birds in them. They believe each chick that dies brings bad luck to the island.

Kiew and Him, his brother-in-law, with an edible-nest swiftlet

Harvesting bird nests is a precarious art. Collectors spend up to a year learning how to shimmy up bamboo scaffolding tied to sheer cave walls. The men stay up in the caves all day, munching swiftlet eggs for energy and using only one tool, a metal prong to prize the nests from the walls. To get to some caves they have to swim through underwater tunnels or swing down on vines from cliff-tops. “Lots of people fell and died on the rocks,” says Latea Bensaard, a retired collector from Libong.

Collecting in this area is controlled by a company called Rangnok Satun-Trang. Since 1 kg of top-quality bird nests is worth up to $1,900, everyone is suspected of being on the take. Collectors must leave the deeds to their homes with the company as insurance. In the caves, they are ordered to climb down at 6 p.m. sharp. “We can’t have them up there after dark when we can’t see what they’re doing,” says a former manager who wishes to remain anonymous. “When they come down, they have to be thoroughly searched. Some collectors even hide nests in their underpants.”

Further out at sea is Muk Island, a postcard-perfect tropical island with palm-lined beaches and dolphins off-shore. A few years ago, Rangnok Satun-Trang took over concessions on the surrounding islands and began managing them with startling brutality. It was then that the fishermen’s problems began.

San Khang-Nam (literally, By-the-Water) is a fisherman with curly silver hair and a rakish smile. “I was standing at the head of my boat looking for schools of fish,” he says, describing his experience with guards hired by Rangnok Satun-Trang to protect its islands. “I didn’t have any idea what had happened. I only felt the heat of the blood running down my leg. My two crewmen yelled at me to get down. ‘You’ve been shot!’ they yelled.” San was taken to hospital on the mainland but the bullet remains lodged in his buttock. The two crew-members — his son and nephew — were also shot and wounded on that trip.

Daraeb Meun-Phakdee is an elderly fisherman who has fished around the craggy cliffs since he was a child. “I went to put down my fishing net and a guard on the island told me I couldn’t put it down there because it was a bird-nest concession area,” he recalls. “I asked him, ‘Why? Are the bird nests in the water?’ He just said, ‘If you don’t want to die then don’t put your net down here.’”

Daraeb has been continuously threatened by Rangnok Satun-Trang’s guards, but the final straw came in March this year. In the past, when Daraeb went night fishing he flashed a torch at the island guards to alert them to his presence. The previous concessionaire’s guards would flash back “OK.” But, when Daraeb signaled Rangnok Satun-Trang’s guards, they fired their guns at him. “I was shocked,” says Daraeb.

Daraeb hasn’t been fishing since. He can no longer make a living because his type of small-scale net fishing relies on the plentiful schools of fish near the islands, and now the islands have become too dangerous. “I can’t even feed my family anymore,” he says.

Bang Mhan and Rong, barely visible at left, descend into an abyss in Kra Sea cave in search of nests.

The bird-nest companies make no apologies for the violence and intimidation. They claim they are protecting themselves from thieves. Thailand’s most infamous bird-nest thieves come from Maak Island on the other side of the southern peninsula. A company called Rangnok Laemthong owns concessions on some five islands here. Between 1992 and 1994, their guards shot dead 29 people they claimed were stealing nests. Many were shot at close range, suggesting execution-style killings.

“I have to accept it,” says Maak district head Roj Krairat, “and our villagers have to accept it. We do steal bird nests.” But only because we have no choice, he quickly adds. The fishermen of Maak can no longer make a living from the fetid inland sea, and poverty has forced them to steal. Roj has petitioned Rangnok Laemthong to solve the problem by hiring local manpower but the company has ignored his pleas. “They bring people from elsewhere to work here, while the people from here have to go elsewhere to find work,” says Roj. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Maak is accustomed to outsiders exploiting the area’s natural resources. It was a government dam and city shrimp farmers that destroyed the waters and killed off the fish. The swiftlets are the only natural resource Maak has left. “The birds will leave sooner or later,” says Mut Yadaywa, a village elder. “They are wild creatures. The more you mess with them, the smaller their population gets. And when the birds are gone there will be nothing left here.”

Back on Muk, the beleaguered villagers have filed reports of each shooting with the police but receive no response. Some have even seen policemen helping the guards patrol the islands. The guards are armed with heavy-duty assault rifles and many have bandoliers of bullets slung across their chests.

Fear of the trigger-happy guards is so great that fishermen no longer dare to go near the islands, even in a storm. Two months ago a fisherman from a neighboring island who was returning from a fishing trip braved one of the monsoon season’s worst storms rather than risk approaching a bird-nest concession island. His boat sank and he drowned. His daughter, who was with him, clung to a piece of Styrofoam and dragged her father’s body home through the waves.

Apichit Angsutrangkul, the man who runs Rangnok Satun-Trang, the company that controls this island, was not available for an interview. Apichit’s secretary said he was on a concession island and monsoon storms were making it too dangerous for him to sail back.

Tourism treasures

The neighboring provinces of Krabi, Phangnga and Phuket are Thailand’s showcase tourist attraction. Millions of foreign visitors are drawn by the majestic limestone islands that tower over tranquil blue bays. When film-makers scoured Southeast Asia for the ultimate tropical paradise in which to set the film “The Beach,” they chose an island here. Thailand’s largest bird-nest company, P.P. Cabana, operates bird-nest concessions on almost 100 islands in this area. The islands are protected by armed guards and the strangely whimsical sign: “Forbidden Area. Monopoly of the Swallows.”

Tourists here have been caught in the cross fire of this rapacious business. Two years ago, a disagreement between tour operators and P.P. Cabana came to a violent head. P.P. Cabana began demanding fees from canoe companies who took tourists paddling around the islands. Most canoe companies feared they would be forced to give up their business and agreed to pay protection money. When Sea Canoe — the company that pioneered kayaking trips around the islands — refused to pay, their operations manager was shot and critically injured. Though the shooting happened in broad daylight in Phuket town, no one has been apprehended. Witnesses say the gunman was so fearless he simply strolled away.

Over-zealous bird-nest guards sometimes target the tourists themselves. One group of foreigners was given a chilling reception near two concession islands called Ngam Yai and Ngam Noi in Chumpon Province. “The islands were covered with bamboo huts,” recalls Tim Redford, a Thailand-based British conservationist who was on the boat. “There must have been at least 200 men on each island. Their huts were pretty basic. They just live there with a bottle of water, an M-16 and a dirty magazine.” When some of the group went snorkeling in a water-filled cave, they were escorted back to the dive boat at gun-point.

Redford recalls the guards saying, “It’s dark in that cave. We could shoot you and claim we didn’t know you were foreigners.” This warning — in effect a death threat — has a depressing subtext. Namely, repercussions would only occur if a foreigner is killed; guards can murder Thais with impunity.

Meanwhile, the tug of war over P.P. Cabana’s islands continues. Canoe groups are demanding that three islands that no longer have bird nests on them be removed from the company’s control. “The birds have disappeared because they kill the chicks when they collect their nests,” says one canoeist. Though P.P. Cabana’s concession only gives them the right to harvest bird nests, the company collects a landing fee of $2.50 per tourist (paid behind the scenes to P.P. Cabana’s office). Sea Canoe estimates that some 30,000 tourists visit the islands each month. This amounts to almost $860,000 profit annually — unreported and tax-free.

The president of P.P. Cabana, Somsak Kittidhrakul, was able to squeeze in a five-minute interview in one of his offices, a dark-windowed shophouse in Krabi town. Somsak willingly admits to having armed guards on his concession islands. “Of course we have to guard the islands,” he says. “We have to keep guards there all year round. Bird nests are a very valuable product and the concession costs us a lot of money. If we lost our nests we would go bankrupt.”

Somsak looks confused when asked about entry fees to the islands. “No, no,” he says. “We don’t do anything like that. We don’t charge anything for entry to the islands. If there’s anyone asking for entry fees, it’s probably just the kids on the islands.”

What kids? “Our employees.”

Inadequate government regulation

Until 1997, the bird-nest business was governed by an out-of-date, 60-year-old act. The act was rewritten under pressure from regional politicians who complained that local resources were being exploited. The new act decentralized control, giving local governments the power to grant five-year concessions to the highest bidder and receive the tax payments. This new system is already rife with corruption.

According to many in the business, bird-nest companies routinely file false reports on how many nests they have collected. The companies are taxed $250 per kilogram of bird nests, so the fewer kilograms they report the less tax they have to pay. Says one former manager of Rangnok Satun-Trang, “If they get 600 kg, they report that they got 200 kg. I should know. I used to count them.”

To safeguard against such practices, a committee chaired by the local governor is supposed to oversee the actual collection. Maak district head Roj Krairat says the company that collects bird nests in his district, Rangnok Laemthong, won’t allow anyone to watch the collection. “I sent two men to the island to witness how many nests were being collected,” says Roj. “The men were allowed on to the islands, but they weren’t allowed inside the caves where the collection was taking place. They had to wait outside.”

In Trang district, they don’t even get that far. “There are no checks,” sighs Issama-el Bensaard, a committee member and critic of the bird-nest collection laws. “The checks take place in hotel restaurants over red wine and meals hosted by Rangnok Satun-Trang. They even serve us bird’s nests. We had two each.”

Irregularities abound. The committee’s 1996 papers reveal that Rangnok Satun-Trang collected no nests that year, yet collectors distinctly remember collecting hundreds of kilograms. Committee members in one province receive “white envelopes” full of money so they will turn a blind eye to discrepancies. The former manager of Rangnok Satun-Trang admits to being regularly paid off: “I would be given 20 to 30,000 baht ($470-710) just to keep my mouth shut.”

The secretive nature of the business has other tragic effects. There is evidence that the edible-nest swiftlet population is shrinking. The nests are being collected too frequently and too ruthlessly. When swiftlet chicks are killed for their nests, the population is not given a chance to regenerate itself. According to Issama-el, collectors on one island are finding only one-third the number of nests they did a decade ago. Collectors also report that some caves have been abandoned by the birds (P.P. Cabana’s three islands are an example of this).

“We wouldn’t kill our own livelihood, now would we?” chuckles P.P. Cabana’s Somsak, denying that swiftlets have disappeared from any of his islands. “To conserve the bird population is the very first tenet of our business.” But there is concern that the short-term five-year contracts are creating a gathering frenzy. “When the resources are of such high value, the temptation is to take as much as you can get hold of,” says Charli Evans, representative in Thailand for CITES, an international convention that monitors trade in endangered species.

In 1994, concern over reports of the bird’s decline, combined with rising demand in the marketplace, prompted an international campaign to make swiftlets a CITES-protected species. This would put restrictions on trade and give conservationists more power to control the collecting process. Led by bird-nest companies, the nest-collecting countries of Southeast Asia successfully protested the move.

One of the ironies of the bird-nest business in Thailand is that many of these islands lie within national parks and should therefore receive special protection. The Royal Forestry Department is responsible for conservation on the islands, yet the bird-nest companies refuse access to park officials. “We are not getting the full cooperation of the companies,” admits Dr. Schwann Tunhikorn, director of the Forestry Department’s Wildlife Conservation Department.

Getting any kind of information about the bird-nest business is difficult. The Interior Ministry is supposed to oversee the industry. A visit to the ministry revealed that they have no copies of the contract signed between bird-nest companies and the government. The Revenue Department of the Finance Ministry admitted to having copies of all current contracts but could not authorize an interview without consulting its legal department, which it was unable to do in time for this article’s deadline. “The bird-nest companies are big and influential,” apologized a spokesman. “We can’t give out the information to just anyone.”

No one wants to accept responsibility for the lawless business of bird nests in Thailand. The companies are free to act however they see fit. For now, it remains a shadowy industry regulated only by men with guns.

In September last year, a 13-year-old boy called Ditchaimanit Phracong sailed around to the back of Muk Island with his uncle. Planning to dive for squid, the pair anchored in a crystal-clear bay about 200 meters from the ancient limestone caves where swiftlets nest. When Ditchaimanit jumped into the water, two guards standing beneath the cliffs sprinkled the sea with bullets.

Miraculously, Ditchaimanit was unharmed. As his uncle dragged the terrified boy back onto the boat, the guards turned around and mooned them.