Report by Harshvardhan

Port Blair, July 30: More often than not conservation pits people or rather people's livelihoods against nature. While conservationists argue against commercial exploitation of natural reserves to save living things at the risk of extinction, critics of conservation such as Ramachandra Guha have argued that creation or extension of reserve areas ultimately affects the livelihoods and very lives of the people who depend on these natural resources for their survival "all in the name of global heritage or biodiversity so that men in London or New York have the comfort of knowing that the Lemur or toucan has been saved for posterity - evidence for which is then provided by way of a wildlife documentary which they can watch on their television screens." (Guha, 'The authoritarian biologist and the arrogance of anti-humanism’). But a landmark conservation project to save the Edible-nest swiftlet launched in the Andaman and Nicobar islands eighteen years ago upset this polarization we have become used to by arguing that the only way to save the Edible-nest swiftlet might be by commercially exploiting it. But the project has all but ground to a halt. The reasons for this are many but the major factors include bureaucratic bungling, the exploitation of daily wage labourers and a general apathy or lack of interest.

The Edible-nest swiftlet is a small bird about 12 cm in length and weighing 10 to 12 grams. In India it is found only in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Apart from India it is also found in China, Singapore and throughout Southeast Asia (including Brunei).  Edible-nest swiftlets live in caves and like bats, navigate these caves through echolocation. They are very agile and feed on aereal insects. Edible-nest swiftlets build small half cup shaped nests (roughly 6 cm across, weighing in the neighborhood of 8-10 grams) stuck to cave walls. These nests are made entirely out of saliva and use no other material (twigs or branches or other fallen debris we normally associate with birds nests). The construction of nests takes upto 2-3 months and during this period the salivary glands of the Edible-nest swiftlet enlarge.

It is this biological quirk of building nests exclusively out of saliva that has endangered the Edible-nest swiftlet. The nests made of saliva look like congealed strands of vermicelli when harvested and dissolves easily in water. For at least the past 400 years the swiflet nests harvested from the Andaman and Nicobar islands and elsewhere have been a delicacy in China - used most often to make an opaque white soup that in Traditional Chinese medicine is attributed with all sorts of cures and properties - from clearing complexion, to restoring virility and clearing the digestive system. Because so many of these nests are poached informally and sold in the black market it is difficult to estimate an exact value of the nests, but estimates vary between $1000 - $4000 per kg (Rs. 70,000 - 2,80,000) making them one of the most expensive and lucrative food items, in the same league as truffles, caviar and matsutake mushrooms.

In 1995, R Sankaran an avian ecologist with SACON (Salim Ali Centre for Natural History and Ornithology) started a comprehensive survey of the Edible- nest swiftlet population in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In 1999, Sankaran published his findings - “ the Edible-nest swiftlet continues to breed in about 92% of the caves which had swiftlets in the past, albeit in much reduced numbers. The reduction in the population indicates that it ranks amongst India’s most threatened species of avifauna. This species is critically endangered as it has undergone a population reduction of 80% over the last 10 years. The long-term prospects for this species is bleak. Unless urgent measures are undertaken it is likely that the Edible-nest swiftlet will become extinct in most places in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in a few years.”

During his research Sankaran noticed that those caves which were ‘owned’ by Nicobarese villagers i.e. when the right to exploit certain caves belonged traditionally and exclusively to certain families had much bigger populations of Edible-nest swiftlets than those caves which were freely accessible to all ( For instance Sankaran found that caves which were only exploited by just one family of tribals in Nancowry and no one else had a population decline of 40-70% over a period of eight years but caves which were exclusively exploited by non-tribals in Great Nicobar saw a population decline of 95% over the same period).

Thus it seemed that ownership fostered a conservation ethic to some extent because an owner would view the Edible-nest swiftlet as a long term resource pool whereas poachers tended to view them as short term gains (thus poaching nests without waiting for Edible-nest swiftlet chicks to hatch and mature).

By the time Sankaran published his findings, Edible-nest swiftlets had already been successfully ranched in huge numbers in concrete houses in Indonesia.

These man-made houses are built to mimic the caves that the Edible-nest swiftlet usually inhabit. The houses have no windows and so are completely dark inside. Small holes allow air to circulate but keep crosswinds to a whisper. Slightly larger openings in the rear of the house allow the swiftlets to enter and leave the houses for foraging etc. but effectively keeps all larger predators out. And huge speakers play pre-recorded swiftlet vocalizations and cave sounds to entice other swiftlets to enter the artifical “cave”.

Sankaran believed that because caves where the Edible-nest swiftlet breed are so remote and inaccessible it might be difficult to protect their natural habitat from poachers and so proposed instead that like in Indonesia man-made houses be built for Edible-nest swiftlets thus not only conserving their population but also generating revenue for villagers and other locals who could be roped in to harvest these nests that could then be sold legally. Sankaran likened this to apiculture - raising bees to commercially harvest honey.

The proposal was accepted and four such houses were built by 2011. Of the four houses built only one in Tughapur managed to attract two Edible-nest swiftlets.

On 27th May 2014 Divisional Forest Officer S.K. Thomas wrote a letter to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) at Port Blair, appraising him of the status of the project “ Artificial swiftlet houses have been constructed…but no fruitful results have come forward. Based on available scientific information modifications and improvements were regularly made as per scientists recommendations but till date the project has not been successful in attracting swiftlet birds for nesting/ roosting.”

Arti Chaudhary, a Conservator of Forests currently overseeing the project says that they are currently looking into it. “ We are working with researchers from SACON and are still fine tuning the techniques, understanding what attracts the swiflets into the houses and what is needed to keep them there. In the meanwhile, since 2008 we have harvested 80 kg of swiftlet nests and are working on finalising a tender to auction it. If this takes off in the international market then we can establish a lucrative revenue stream for local villagers.”

But Shirish Manchi a senior scientist at SACON and a protege of Sankaran who joined the project in 2003 said that no one from SACON is currently involved in the project. “Until two years ago I was working on the project. From 2014 onwards SACON and Andaman Forest Department have been working on raising funds from the ministry. Last year I submitted a proposal to the Forest Department to raise funds and  they said they would get back to me but so far I have not heard back from them.”

Manchi also alleges that the failure of the man-made houses to attract any birds has less to  do with the method which needs fine tuning, rather the problem is with the site-selection and implementation itself. “ When you make the houses ideally they should be in the path of the switlets foraging areas. But all the houses built recently for experimental purposes were built on forest department land which may not be in the path of the swiftlets.”

Though Shirish Manchi is currently working on the Narcondam hornbill and Andaman serpent-eagle he has all but given up hope on the Edible-nest swiftlet.

The labourers who worked with SACON and the Forest Department were also grossly exploited. As early as 2001, the Forest Department had engaged some 12 DRMs - daily rate mazdoors to monitor swiftlet nests. On condition of anonymity I spoke to one of these mazdoors who was hired intermittently from 2001 to 2004 and continously from 2004 until May of this year when he was fired without explanation.

“I had a small plot of land my grandfather had left me. I used to farm this plot of land and eke out a living. Now I wish I had never taken up this job with the Forest Department…I would have had a garden of my own by now! I have given 16 years of my life to this wretched job. Every year during the nesting period of the swiftlets from January to June we would be contracted. During this period of six months we could not go back home and had to live in campsites in the forest. Our job was everyday to go and monitor swiftlet nests at a total of 41 caves at Pathilevel. We had to check to see if the nests had been tampered with, what the status of the eggs was or once the eggs hatched what the health of the baby was etc. and we would make a note of this..the progress or decline in the health of the swiftlets. Going into these caves itself was always a scary and frightening experience (hum har bar jaan ko haath mein le kar ke jate the). The caves were pitch black inside, darker than night and we had to climb down some 300 odd feet just on a rope. If by chance some bats sat on a rock and it became dislodged and fell on our heads we would have died instantly. But from Day 1 we were told we were completely responsible for ourselves and wouldn’t be compensated in case of any accident.”

A bigger problem was having to live away from home for half a year. “One of the labourers who worked with me, his wife passed away because he was working in the caves. She had been pregnant and had gone into labour. By the time someone was able to inform him and he rushed back home he found his pregnant wife and the child she had been carrying, both dead. I myself had to take a loan of Rs.50,000 to hire people to work my land while I was away working in the caves. I am yet to make a single repayment on the loan and it has just been accruing interest.”

“The only reason we took up this work despite all the disadvantages was because we were promised that we would be made permanent employees. We used to work day and night. Because somebody always had to patrol at night and keep an eye out for poachers we took to sleeping in shifts. Eventhough we worked continuously for 6 months in a year we were paid wages for only eight hours of work, that never amounted to more than 5-6,000 in a month. Eventually we were promised a 60% share of all nests which were harvested commercially and were told that the money we earned this way would compensate for all the extra labour we had put in.”

There is an official record of this promise the mazdoors were made in the same letter I had quoted before, a letter S.K. Thomas, a divisional officer of the Forest Department wrote to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife) at Port Blair.

“The DRMs engaged in in-situ conservation sites at Pathilevel and Wrafter’s creek for protection of the caves are very much frustrated as they work in a very difficult situation. During their engagement they cannot go home nor can they perform any other work for their families. In return they are getting only seven months daily wages, ration and camping materials which is a meager amount in terms of their sacrifice to the department. Therefore it is suggested to provide incentives from the profit share after selling the nests which have been harvested now.”

There is no mention of whether this proposal was accepted or rejected in official government records and it is possible that it has simply reached a bureaucratic dead-end.

In early March this year all the mazdoors who had long been associated with the project and who had long been promised compensation were kicked out. The Forest Department has instead hired a new team of mazdoors and appropriated all of the edible nests harvested by the mazdoors (some 80 kg of it) and is now preparing a tender to auction it off.

The person I spoke to was especially worried about the health of the swiftlets he had monitored for so long that he even recognized most of them by face. “When we were fired in March, it was only then that many swiftlets had laid eggs. Swiftlet babies take 30-45 days to mature and it is monitoring them during this time that is most crucial. Instead we have all been sent home while a new team of mazdoors have been hired …mazdoors who do not even know where the caves are or who unlike us have no experience doing this job and will have to learn everything from scratch.”

My informant was also worried about the possibility of corruption. “Currenty a babu (forest officer) called Nabin Biswas is looking after the project. In 1993 or 1994 Nabin babu had been caught trafficking swiftlet nests and had been transferred. With him in charge of the project, I worry what will happen to the swiftlets. It was after he was appointed to this project that we were all kicked out.”

As things stand, with the people who were most passionately involved in the project now no longer a part of it (researchers from SACON or the mazdoors who worked on it for several years), any prospects of conserving the Edible-nest swiftlet once again seem bleak.