Monday, January 10, 2011

Special parks to house swiftlets

By Shanti Gunaratnam
                                        THE lucrative bird's nest business has through the years come under fire from people who claim it is a health hazard and a threat to heritage.Over the last few years, getting swiftlets to roost in converted shophouses has become big business as entrepreneurs cash in on the strong demand for bird's nests, mainly from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong.

The nests, made from the saliva of Aerodamus fuciphagus, are said to be excellent for the complexion and in promoting respiratory and gastric health.

The swiftlets use their spit to string together small gauze-like nests which are the main ingredient of bird's nest soup, a Chinese delicacy. The "bird houses" started flourishing in the 1990s. There are now an estimated 50,000 such "swiftlet hotels" in the country.

Now, there are plans to build swiftlet ranches which promise a more organised and structured method of producing the delicacy.

In the ranches, said to be the first of its kind in the world, "housing units" of detached, semi-detached and terrace types permit edible bird's nests to be cultivated in an organised manner, with the ranches also serving as an eco-tourism centre.

Fourteen swiftlet ranches have been planned throughout the country. Sites have been identified in Perak, Selangor, Pahang, Terengganu and Johor.

"We are looking to be the second largest producer of edible bird's nests in the world," said Swiftlet Eco Park Berhad chief operating officer C.H. Tan.

Swiftlet Eco Park is part of a holding company that is involved in the planning, development, construction and marketing of custom-made and licensed swiftlet farms.

According to the group's website, its first project in Manjung, Perak, was developed in collaboration with the Perak State Development Corporation. The group is developing 14 similar projects all over Malaysia and aims to complete 25 projects with 1,000 licensed buildings over the next three years at a gross development value of RM500 million.

Malaysia is, at present, the second largest producer of bird's nests in the world after Indonesia. Indonesia produces 78 per cent of the world's bird's nests with Malaysia trailing far behind with only 10 per cent, while Thailand produces the rest. Some 375 tonnes of raw unprocessed bird's nests were produced last year.

The development of the parks is aimed at assisting the government in addressing the current problem of illegal and disorganised bird's nest cultivation in Malaysia.

"While the industry is growing in a big way, there has also been negative perception from both the public and authorities in recent years, no thanks to errant bird house owners."

Many swiftlet house owners had been taken to task for playing loud chirping sounds round the clock to lure the swiftlets into the bird houses which were converted from old houses, commercial shop offices, or abandoned buildings without approval from the authorities.

There have also been complaints of foul-smelling swiftlet droppings which could be a health hazard. Other problems include swiftlet houses operating in crowded urban areas.

Also other matters of concern are H5N1 bird flu, bird mites fever and unattended electrical equipment and appliances in swiftlet houses which might pose a fire hazard and the fact that many of the bird houses are illegal, thus depriving the state government of income.

"We intend to be a huge player in the bird's nest industry and are looking at producing up to 25 per cent of the world's demand.  "The whole industry is worth RM15 billion and we want a big chunk of that to flow back into the country," Tan said.

The company hopes to produce about 240kg per bird house which will bring them an income of RM300 million annually.  Initially, 50 per cent of Swiftlet Eco Park's bird's nests will be sold locally, to cater for domestic demand.

"Malaysians, for decades, have known the benefits of consuming bird's nests. "The Chinese have included bird's nests in their diet for centuries while India, a new market along with the Middle East, is catching up in a big way along with other countries."

The company is also considering venturing into eco-tourism which include swiftlet watching, house visits, feeding swiftlet chicks, learning more about swiftlet habitat, and it has earmarked the Setiu ranch in Terengganu for this purpose.

"People have always been fascinated with bird's nests and where they come from. "Since we construct and custom-make swiftlet farms, we are in a position to show them how they are produced.

"Bird's nests are fetching very good prices now with the raw unprocessed ones costing between RM4,500 to RM5,500 per kg, while processed ones are sold between RM11,000 to RM19,000 per kg."

Shoplots converted into Swiftlet Park in Penang

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