Bird Nest Soup Mafia – China & Thai Connection
The history of Chinese cuisine is marked by both variety and change. The archaeologist and scholar K.C. Chang says “Chinese people are especially preoccupied with food” and “food is at the centre of, or at least it accompanies or symbolizes, many social interactions.” Over the course of history, he says, “continuity vastly outweighs change.” He explains basic organizing principles which go back to earliest times and give a continuity to the food tradition, principally that a normal meal is made up of fan (grains and other starches) and cai (vegetable or meat dishes).
Is Chinese cuisine culture going too far though? That is the moral question I asked myself some eight years back when visiting China and their lavish cultural food stalls and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) markets. This week we look into China’s most lavish and expensive dish commonly referred to as yàn wō (燕窝), which translates literally as “swifflet nest” or (swallow nest). Yan wo is not only killing our swallows off it also accounts to numerous deaths per year of those whom dare risk their lives just to harvest a nest deep within caves, money is big business within China and these nests don’t come cheap neither.
The most famous use of edible birds nest is bird’s nest soup, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. When dissolved in water, the birds’ nests have a gelatinous texture used for soup or sweet tong sui. It is mostly referred to as “yan wo” unless references are made to the salty or sweet soup in Chinese cuisine.
In addition to its use in soup, edible birds nest can be used as an ingredient in many other dishes, it can be cooked with rice to produce bird’s nest congee or bird’s nest boiled rice, or it can be added to egg tarts and other desserts. A bird’s nest jelly can be made by placing the bird’s nest in a ceramic container with minimal water and sugar (or salt) and double steamed. Ready to eat bird’s nest jelly is available in jars as a commercial product.
Harvesting the birds nest is no easy task too, attached or glued high up in caves Asian collectors go to great lengths to harvest these nests regardless of whether the nests have new young within them or if the mother swift is about to lay her eggs. The nests themselves are tiny translucent cups about the size of a small egg. They are made by the male swiftlet from glutinous threads of its own saliva, which it weaves into a cup that dries to become thin and translucent like fine porcelain.
Chinese parents feed bird’s nest soup, cooked with chicken broth or coconut milk, to their children in the belief that it will improve their complexions, promote growth and generally act as a tonic. Recent research has indeed shown that the nests, which taste rather like noodles, contain a water-soluble glycoprotein that may promote cell division in the immune system. However there are no real scientific studies that actually pin points any form of “medicinal properties” within birds nest that actually increase human health although this is being debated heavily at the moment.
Nest collecting is skilled and dangerous work, high up on the ceilings of the caves the intrepid collector shins barefoot up rickety trellises of bamboo scaffolding, ropes and bridges, tapping as he goes (see pic below – shadow hunters) to make sure the bamboo is sound. He lights his way in the black caves with a torch of bark soaked in resin held between his teeth and uses a special three-pronged tool called a rada to harvest the nests. To use bare hands to pick a nest displeases and angers the gods. (If interested please do purchase the book shadow hunters of which is a really inspiring good read – click on the link shadow hunters above).
If a nest is too old it cannot be made into top quality soup, but can be made into second rate soup. A nest needs to be made from fresh saliva, with no feathers or dirt. A fresh nest is white, an old one is black. A bird’s nest is made of nothing but saliva: no twigs, nothing else. It is made in a similar way to fibreglass, with the bird laying lots of threads on top of each other.
A sustainable supply of birds’ nests is ensured and the survival of the species is allegedly protected because nests are collected only when empty. The most productive island for nests is Koh Petra, from which over 100 kg of nests are collected 3 times in a good year. Koh Lao Liang supplies about 30 kg of nests 3 times a year. After the chicks have flown away the mother will eat the nest in order to replenish her energy supply. The collectors, of whom there are 60 in the Koh Petra Marine Park, must find the nest before the mother eats it.
International Animal Rescue Foundation Asia argue this alleged sustainable use as evidence has pinpointed the collection of bird nests within China and Thailand is actually placing both Aerodramus fuciphagus and Aerodramus maximus (White Nest and Black Nest Swiflet) in danger. I must also point out that there is also a significantly high risk of contracting Avian Influenza (CDC) from the illegal importation of bird nest soup and it’s selling on the streets and in high classed restaurants throughout Asia.
Nothing that a Chinese host can put on a table has more cachet than a bowl of viscous bird’s nest soup. For centuries, it has been a delicacy throughout the Chinese world, a dish famed for its ability to keep people young and healthy. But bird nests are becoming increasingly scarce. While the shortage is not yet a crisis, Chinese connoisseurs are obliged to pay more each time they bargain for nests – up to $1,000 a pound for top-quality nests.
”The price will definitely continue to increase,” Stephen Tam, owner of the Cheong Loong Swallow’s Nest store, said as he sorted the dozens of varieties of nests in his small shop here. ”Most places the birds live have been developed into farmland or towns, and that reduces the number of birds that are left.” In addition to the encroachment of humans on the birds’ habitat, pollution is eroding some of the cliffs where they live and build their nests. Meanwhile, rising prices are leading the ”harvesters” of nests to become more aggressive, sometimes snatching nests as soon as they are built, or grabbing nests that have eggs in them which is quite the opposite to what has been alleged by few American supporters of this trade that stated;
“A nest needs to be made from fresh saliva, with no feathers or dirt. A fresh nest is white, an old one is black. A bird’s nest is made of nothing but saliva: no twigs, nothing else. It is made in a similar way to fibreglass, with the bird laying lots of threads on top of each other”…
The nests used to make the soup belong to a kind of swallow, which builds on rocky cliffs or inside caves in several countries in Southeast Asia. Most of the nests today come from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam or China.
The nests are not, as most Americans assume, a thatch of twigs and grass such as a robin might manufacture. Rather, they are made of the birds’ saliva, which hardens into cement-like threads. When collected, the nests contain liberal amounts of feathers and even droppings, but are carefully washed and cleaned until they are white strips that look more like sponges than nests. While swallow saliva soup may not send tingles across a Western palate, the Chinese rave over it. It is usually cooked with crab meat, shrimp or ham to make a gelatinous soup that is renowned principally for its healthfulness.
”The taste of the nests is nothing great,” said Fok Kam Tong, head chef at the Man Wah Restaurant in Hong Kong’s Mandarin Hotel, where a bowl of bird’s nest soup ranges in price from $14 to $38. That is why crab and other embellishments are added, he said. But bird’s nest soup has virtues other than mere taste. ”It’s very good for you, very nourishing,” Mr. Fok added. ”It’s good for women, for their skin, so they don’t look old. But it’s not just for women; it’s good for everybody.”
Mr. Fok disputes the pessimists who say that bird’s nest soup could eventually disappear. While scarcity of the proper nests is a concern, he and many Chinese food experts say, the resulting price increase would make it even more prized as a delicacy.
”If it becomes more expensive, it will be even more popular in Hong Kong,” said Sunny Lan Kun Ying, a salesman at Yuen Wo Bird’s Nest store near Hong Kong’s business district.
Not according to the owners of the small Hong Kong shops that sell bird nests, who say most people are being priced out of the market. The cost of bird’s nests has more than doubled in the last few years, they say, making it more difficult to afford a nest for a daughter with a skin blemish or a son who is about to take an important examination. Some kinds of nests are becoming particularly rare, such as the red ones called ”blood nests.” These have a reddish tinge that chefs say derives from blood in the birds’ saliva. It is even better for one’s health than regular bird nests, they say.
So, while regular bird nests sell for about $500 for a catty – a Chinese unit of weight amounting to just over a pound – the best-quality blood nests sell for nearly $1,300 a catty at the most exclusive shop. Meanwhile, the swallows are seeking more and more remote locations to build their nests in places where humans will not intrude. They must avoid not only youths who scamper along the cliffs or climb bamboo scaffolding to cave ceilings, but also monkeys that have been trained to climb the rock walls and retrieve nests. However as the nest price increases so does the demand and the more demand increases the greater threat of looming extinction arises with regards to these birds.
”The swallows are very careful,” said Mr. Fok, the chef. ”They will never build a nest where it is easy to get to, hence why there are so many human fatalities at every year”.
Bird Nest Soup – Pushing species into decline;
Threatened status is only a step away.
Identified by Thunberg, 1812 the Aerodramus fuciphagus commonly known as the Edible-nest Swiftlet is currently listed as (least concern) however does not mean for one minute that their moving to endangered level. Population size is now on the decrease with regards to both species and to date there has been no collated date to prove populations are increasing since last surveyed back in 2012. Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size has not been quantified, but it is not believed to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
Back in 1878 Collocalia maxima known to as (Aerodramus maximus) was identified by Hume. Again as with Aerodramus fuciphagus this species is also on the decline of which is listed as least concern. Least concern may not seem significantly worrying, however its one step away from (near threatened) so as long as bird nest harvesting continues and prices increase nests and their young will be placed in furthermore danger. Black nest swiflet – Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size has not been quantified, but it is not believed to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
Please note before reading on – there has been no real scientific studies that have ever proven bird nest soup can cure; Cancer, HIV, AIDS, Pancreatic Cancer, Avian Flu, Human Influenza, Diabetes, or improve human complexion. All studies that I myself a veterinarian and environmentalist have researched indicated that research around bird nest soup still remains to this very day “mysterious”.
On my travel to China of which I was investigating the wildlife parts trade me and my colleagues uncovered quite a significant find. Many animal parts that were being sold under the guise of “healing foods and traditional medicine” had been soaked in synthetic pharmaceutical medicines. Read more here – http://www.cites.org/eng/com/sc/62/E62-47-02-A.pdf
This find not a rare find but an important one informs us that demand will continue to rise due to this practice. People buying animal parts such as Rhino horn powder, Tiger bone wine even sea horses are being fooled into believing that the animal parts they are digesting are “naturally” healing them. However in reality the only properties that are healing, reducing pain, inflammation or influenza are animal parts laced with antibiotics, NSAIDS, and neurological antidepressants and sexual performance prescription medications. Whilst this practice continues and in the eyes of the law demand will continue of which individuals that buy into this trade actually believe animal parts are curing them. The fault lays not with the peddlers as such but more the manufactures of pharmaceuticals that must take responsibility.
Picture above – Indonesia, Java hundreds of thousands of bird nests are allegedly harvested then replaced with a synthetic nest that the harvester quoted “sustains the species”.
In some documents provided by the distribution of bird nest, the nest is said to have many nutritional rare, typically some kind of protein and amino acid amide, humin, arginine, cystine, histidine, and lysine. In addition, oats also contain minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. Effects of oats, some documents that oats aid in the lungs, strengthen the body, boost the immune system, accelerate cell regeneration, help with rapid recovery, and even support disease against HIV AIDS. (There is NO scientific data that proves bird nest soup has ever had any impact on individual suffering from human immunodeficiency virus and (acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Science cannot yet explain the healing powers attributed to the soup, they conclude. Birds’ nests “bioactivities and medicinal value are still open to question as there (is) not much scientific research on the medicinal properties,” Fucui Ma and Daicheng Liu of Shandong Normal University in China wrote in a review article published October 2011 issue of the Journal Food Research International.
Swiftlets live in limestone caves around the Indian Ocean, in South and South East Asia, North Australia and the Pacific Islands. Males primarily build the nests, attaching them to the vertical walls of the caves. Removing them can be dangerous and painstaking work, and, depending on the type of nest, it can take one person eight hours to clean 10 nests, the researchers write.
For possibly 1,200 years, the Chinese have prepared and eaten the nests as a soup. The nests are considered to have a high nutritional and medicinal value, believed to have everything from anti-aging and anti-cancer properties to the ability to improve concentration and raise libido. Protein is the most abundant constituent of the nests, which contain all of the essential amino acids, the building blocks out of which proteins are made. They also contain six hormones, including testosterone and estradiol, the researchers write.
The nests also contain carbohydrates, ash and a small quantity of lipids (naturally occurring molecules that include fats). Previous research has indicated that the nests contain substances that can stimulate cell division and growth, enhance tissue growth and regeneration, and that it can inhibit influenza infections. But not everyone reacts well to them. Birds’ nests are known to cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Little research has been carried out on their biological function so far, and more is needed to better understand the qualities attributed to them, they conclude.
China and Thailand – Bird Nest Connection;
About a half-dozen companies, which have been granted concessions by local governments to gather swiftlet nests for the lucrative bird’s nest soup market, are protecting their fiefdoms with private armies that shoot at “unauthorized” visitors. They also bribe authorities to look the other way, charge tourist operators protection money and keep locals suspected of being poachers from their traditional fishing grounds on the coast of the scenic Andaman Sea.
These concessionaires are so secretive about their operations on about 140 cave-ridden limestone islands that few Thai officials have any idea what they are up to or are willing to provide much information.
“The bird’s nest companies are big and influential,” said a bureaucrat from the tax revenue department in Bangkok who spoke off the record. “We can’t give out information (about their activities) to just anyone.” But it is no secret that swiftlet colonies are being depleted to supply Chinese restaurants with edible nests from glutinous globs of dried bird saliva that are cooked in a broth. The soup is popular because it is believed to help growth, skin complexion and sex drive, prevent lung disease and stave off aging. (As explained there is NO evidence to back these claims up that bird nest soup has medical properties or is advantageous to humans).
When a swiftlet’s cup-shaped nest is taken before it can lay eggs, the bird is forced to build another one. In the caves, collectors shimmy up bamboo poles lashed together with liana vines. Death and injury from falls are not uncommon.
Picture above – Black Nest Swiflet
The climbers typically take two nests from each bird, allowing the bird to rear its young in a third so the population can regenerate. But high demand has increasingly caused gatherers to take that nest as well, and baby birds are thrown away. 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.
“When the resources are of such high value, the temptation is to take as much as you can get hold of,” said Charli Evans, representative in Thailand for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international group that monitors commerce in endangered species. Many people interviewed for this story were afraid to speak on the record. A resident of the town of Puhuket who has spoken out against a nest company’s violent tactics has moved his residence four times because of death threats. “It is a dark business,” he said.
The Chinese began eating bird’s nest soup about 1,500 years ago. Today, millions of nests are sent to Chinese communities around the world. Hong Kong is the world’s largest market, followed by the United States, mainland China and Taiwan. International Animal Rescue Foundation Asia / America will begin lobbying for birds nest soup to be abolished from the United States menu of Asian cuisines based on evidence of now depleting swiflet populations. We are supportive of a “sustainable trade” that will not harm the birds, or see populations depleted however based on our own investigations and that of third parties “sustainable trade” is just not working nor is governmental quotas that are in place to protect the birds from being pushed into near extinction.
Some call it “white gold,” because a kilo (2.2 pounds) sells for almost $2,000. A bowl of bird’s nest soup at a good Hong Kong restaurant can go for as much as $60. Thailand exports about 19,800 pounds annually, which generates $23.8 million in taxes. A push by CITES to protect swiftlets has failed, mostly because of opposition by Southeast Asian countries where so much money is at stake.
In Thailand’s southern Trang province, a company called Satun Trang Bird’s Nest recently obtained a five-year concession on swiftlet nests. Fishermen on Muk say company speedboats have chased them away and armed men have shot at them if they sailed too close to company operations. In the early 1990s, clashes between licensed collectors and locals who poached on nest concession areas resulted in the deaths of 29 villagers in a nearby area called Pattalung.
“I was standing at the head of my boat looking for schools of fish,” said San Khang-Nam, who, along with his son and nephew, was recently wounded by guards shooting at them when their boat approached company operations. “I didn’t have any idea what had happened (until) I felt the heat of the blood running down my leg.” Daraeb Meun-Phakdee, an elderly resident who has fished on Muk since childhood, says the island has become too dangerous. “I can’t even feed my family anymore,” he said.
Picture above – White Nest Swiflet
Area fishermen have filed police reports after each attack, but their complaints typically have been ignored. Fear of trigger-happy security guards is so great that a Muk fisherman recently sailed into a typhoon rather than risk waiting out the storm near a concession area. His boat sank, and he drowned. His daughter clung to a piece of Styrofoam and managed to drag her father’s body ashore. Apichit Angsutrangkul, who runs Satun Trang Bird’s Nest, did not return calls seeking comment.
Until 1997, the bird’s nest industry was governed by a 61-year-old law. Then new legislation decentralized control, giving local governments the power to grant five-year concessions to the highest bidder in exchange for tax payments of $252 per kilo collected. This new system is riddled with corruption, most observers agree.
The companies avoid paying higher taxes by reporting fewer kilos. “If they get 600 kilos, they report 200. I should know. I used to count them,” said a former manager of Satun Trang Bird’s Nest, who asked to remain anonymous. A committee headed by the local governor is supposed to oversee the tax collection. “There are no real checks,” said Issama-el Bensaard, a committee member and industry critic. “The checks take place in hotel restaurants over red wine and meals hosted by Satun Trang Bird’s Nest. They even serve us bird’s nest.”
Ironically, many islands are part of national parks and should be protected by the Royal Forestry Department. Yet concessionaires often have refused access to forestry officials. “We are not getting the full cooperation of the companies,” said Schwann Tunhikorn, director of the Royal Forestry Department’s Wildlife Conservation Department.
Picture above – Peddler states “One of the best quality EBN produce and process in Malaysia. I was told this grade can fetch a very high price up to RM30,000 per kg in China retail market”
But Somsak Kittidhrakul, president of P.P. Cabana, owner of the nation’s largest bird’s nest concession of almost 100 islands, says he is taking the necessary precautions to preserve the swiftlet. “To conserve the bird population is the first tenet of our business,” he said. “We wouldn’t kill our own livelihood now, would we?”
On the island of Java, Indonesia we recently located a supplier online that uses old houses for swallows to inhabit. Mr Tasik states “this is a prudent way to obtain kite nests from undisturbed habitat by providing an empty house to where they make nests. WHAT Mr Tasik fails to realize is that he is still disturbing the nests of which all birds are very sensitive to human interference. Pictured above is Mr Tasik of which sells these nests for US$1350 / kg. Mr Tasik also offers free delivery.
No matter how well-meaning, human interference can reduce a young bird’s chances of survival. Handling can cause extreme stress and being fed an inappropriate diet can cause development problems. Unless a baby bird is clearly a nestling, or is a fledgling that is injured or in immediate danger it is best to leave them alone. Under no circumstances should bird nests be interfered with as this can cause mother and father to bolt leaving fledglings abounded that will unfortunately perish.
The bird nest soup industry is a multi-million dollar industry that makes a staggering $29 million every year. Birds nest soup can sell for as little as $40 a bowl to $2,000 a bowl. Evidence has clearly indicated that both species of swallow are currently on the decline which poses concerns with regards to other species. SHOULD the trade not be banned or severely restricted, for instance banning trade in the United States and restricting concessions then we will most certainly see both species of Aerodramus fuciphagus and Aerodramus maximus (White Nest and Black Nest Swiflet) plummet to very worrying levels that could in the next ten to fifteen years see the species pushed furthermore into the realms of endangerment. We must act now and not in the next ten years when we realize the problem is out of control.
International Animal Rescue Foundation Asia is supportive of a regulated sustainable trade if it works, meaning that areas of habitat are located, built on, and the Asiatic swallow nests are harvested without the need to interfere with the breeding nest, or damaging the current cycle of living. However based on evidence gathered over the past two years it is clearly evident that this sustainable trade is not going to work. Buyers of birds nest soup want the real deal. They wish to pay for a nest that comes from the wild. Evidence has also shown that birds nests are not being harvested as they should or under laws implemented by the Asian governments. So therefore whilst both a sustainable trade is not working, and both species of Asiatic swallow are now decreasing rapidly we have to as a professional animal and environmental organisation, take action before it is to late. Ignoring this matter will just see extinctions occur before our eyes.
Should extinction occur will other species of birds be placed in danger furthermore? We already know from investigating the Rhino horn trade in China and Vietnam that “other ungulate horned” species are being sold as a fake Rhino horn medicine. Asian peddlers will be out of pocket by some thousands should extinction occur.
Based on our own surveillance and investigations of the illegal and legal wildlife trade we have STRONG reason to believe that should extinctions occur of both Aerodramus fuciphagus and Aerodramus maximus (White Nest and Black Nest Swiflet) then other species of bird nest will be poached, hunted or harvested thus supplying a constant income for peddlers and dealers.
A very worrying trend is emerging within the Asian wildlife trade market, something we knew would happen. One has to look at it like this. If for instance you was making quite a large income from selling high value wildlife parts that then went extinct, what would YOU do to keep your income flowing in knowing you have been living a lavish lifestyle. Humans are greedy, when quick money can be made and is supporting other trades and living its clearly evident that selfish humans will go to any extremes to continue their lavish lifestyle regardless of whether it kills the entire planet.
Thank you for reading;
Dr Josa C. Depre
Environmental-Botanical- Zoological and Veterinary Science
www.international-animalrescue-foundation.org.uk (Communications site only)
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