Friday, March 5, 2010

Money on wings

By Wilson Luke February 28, 2010, Sunday

On average, unprocessed bird’s nests can fetch RM4,000 per kg, meaning the industry can generate RM48 million a month.

ENVIRONMENT-FRIENDLY: A bird house being constructed away from residential and populated areas. A lucrative business to venture into at the moment maybe just flying around the corner.

Trading in bird’s nests has found a niche in the market after it began more than a century ago with the first recorded harvesting being carried out at the Niah Caves in 1878. Indonesia was the first nation to commercialise the commodity due to its high value globally.

However, in the late 1990s when the haze blanketted the Southeast Asian region, most of the birds from Indonesia migrated across the border to Sarawak and the peninsula. That was when Loh Siaw Kuei, a third generation supplier of local bird’s nests, started to take interest in swiflets ranching.

He recalled previously, they had to rely on suppliers from Niah in Miri before they could process and export the commodity mainly to China. According to him, the old processing method left behind a lot of impurities, and supplies from the harvesters were also inconsistent.

In 2000, he decided to venture into swiftlets ranching and he put up a building just outside the city for the purpose. “I started with an investment of RM30,000,” said Loh, arguably a local pioneer in modern swiftlets ranching.

He forked out another RM10,000 to buy the equipment needed to attract the swiftlets.
Being new to the venture, he sought help from friends and business partners in the peninsula who had started much earlier. “It was truly by trial and error,” Loh said, adding that he started almost from scratch and persevered for more than five years before seeing the fruit of his labour. Now, Loh has five ‘bird houses’ in Kuching and Samarahan. “If the bird house turns out to be good, you can expect about 100 to 300 nests in the first year,” he said.

According to him, to be a successful swiftlets farmer, the three most important criteria are (1) getting started; (2) waiting (patiently) for the swiftlets to build their nests and (3) be innovative and constantly upgrading the farm with knowledge and technology. It is estimated there are 1,000 bird houses in Sarawak and presently, about 10,000 buildings are used as swiftlet ranches nationwide, producing roughly 12 tonnes of bird’s nests monthly to which Sarawak contributes some five tones.

Presently, Loh obtains a lot of supplies from the Sarawak Bird’s Nests Merchant Association (SBNMA) of which he is president. On average, unprocessed bird’s nests can fetch RM4,000 per kg, depending on the graded quality. This means the industry is capable of generating RM48 million a month.

Although Mukah is the main centre for swiftlets ranching, other areas with their own potential are Kuching, Bintulu, Sarikei and Sibu. Basically, there are two types of products — cave bird’s nests and house bird’s nests. According to Loh, not many bird’s nests are obtained from caves after the introduction of bird houses. “The nests from bird houses are much cleaner and more hygienic compared to those produced in caves.”

The two swiflets species producing the edible bird’s nests are collocolia fuciphaga/aerodramus fuciphagus (AF) and collocolia maxima/aerodramus maximus (AM) found mostly in Malaysia at present. The bird house has to be insulated and properly ventilated with the temperature kept below 30 degrees Celcius for the swiftlets to stay and breed.
Under normal circumstances, a pair produces two eggs per season — and three times in a year. If the bird house is conducive, by the 10th year, the total number of swiftlets could exceed 700,000 pairs with an estimated population of 1.5 million. Although on paper, this may look impressive but in reality, it might not be accurate. However, even achieving only half the population figure would be regarded as a success.

A female swiftlet remains productive for 10 to 15 years and can live up to 25 years. Bird’s nests are used in medicine, cosmetics and the food-based industry, worth RM1.5 billion annually in Malaysia through the export of raw bird’s nests, especially to China. Recently, there was proposal to launch a multi-million ringgit swiftlets eco park in Sarawak to accommodate the thriving local bird’s nests industry.

So far, seven sites have been identified around Kuching, Sarikei, Bintulu and Mukah. The project involves the construction of terrace houses or shoplots for swiftlets farming and processing in a systematic and ecologically friendly manner.

For those interested in swiftlets ranching, the bird’s nests industry is under the purview of the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998, Wildlife Protection (Edible Bird Nests) Rule 1998 and Wildlife Protection Rules 1998.

What this means is that the birds may live and be harvested with licence in their natural habitat such as cave dwellings but prohibited in urban or residential areas.

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