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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Economically sound, environmentally friendly

Economically sound, environmentally friendly
Melvin Goh
Sarawak Tribune, 14 July 2003

Economically sound, environmentally friendly. Lending a hand in boosting swiftlets population can be rewarding for all parties concerned, writes Melvin Goh

Over the years, we have almost become accustomed to news and reports of the alarming decline of the swiftlets populations in Sarawak, especially at Niah, one of the most famous areas for birds nest productions since the Brooke era.

While many attempts to halt the tide of this decline were implemented and tried, non proved successful, at least until quite recently.

This came about after much pain staking research was done by Dr Lim Chan Koon who advocated a new plan to reverse the trend and revive the industry which was almost on the verge of collapsing in the early eighties.

There are two main types of swiftlets which produce the edible birds nests here, namely the Black-nest (Aerodramus maximus) and White-nest (Aerodramus fuciphagus), names given to distinguish the difference between the two species,explains Lim.

The White-nests are more valuable but the Black-nest swiftlets are more widespread and numerous in Sarawak; most of the birds nests exported are the Black-nest variety.

My first study of swiftlets was at the Baram area in 1996 which showed that White-nest swiftlets adopted a multi-brood reproductive strategy, meaning that the birds will try to breed and raise youngs as many times as possible during the long and favourable breeding season.

Based on that understanding, we were able to devise a sustainable management plan for the White-nest colony there which calls for a voluntary ban on nests collection for one complete circle of reproduction for the birds.

The initial reluctance of the cave owners to accept the idea quickly changed after four years when the production jumped by 30%!, smiled Lim who is currently the Community Adviser for the DANCED/SWMPI project launched by the Sarawak Forest Department.

Considering that a kilo of birds' nest now is worth a staggering RM1000-RM15000 (depending on the quality) a 30% increase in the harvest can bring quite a substantial return.

Since then, the same management plan has been adopted for use at Niah National Park where the Cave Manager cum Trader Concept (CMT) is implemented after the success of the same plan at Bukit Sarang, Tatau in the Bintulu Division.

While it is still a bit too early to determine the results from Niah, the outcome from Bukit Sarang is already conclusive.

We started out in 2000 but the cave owners had implemented the voluntary ban on collection in 1999, Lim begins. In practical terms, the complete cycle of four years for the swiftlets to replace the entire population was achieved in 2003 (given that a whole generation was allowed to breed each year for a period of four months without any collection of the nests) here, he adds.

The population size in 2000 was estimated to be 4264 which increased to 4453 by 2001 (a 4% increase), achieving further growth to 4678 (10% increase) in 2002 and has been recorded as over 5000 in 2003 (17% increase).

The results are encouraging for us as the same species (Black-nest swiftlets) predominate at the Niah area. This also proves that the same management strategy can be used for the Black-nests and we are quietly confident of the outcome next year, enthuses Lim.

In a similar study of a smaller cave owned by a Punan licensee, we were able to record similar results after the introduction of the voluntary ban on harvesting for one generation.

Initial findings showed that there was no breeding of the swiftlets in 1999 as monthly harvests of nests were conducted and not too surprisingly, the bird nests population dropped from 220 to 200 in 2000.

For 2000, the cave was left alone with no collection the entire year which meant that three complete breeding cycles were achieved.

Upon inspection in 2001, it was found that there was a 10% increase in the number of nests (240) and this figure further jumped to 330 in 2002, a whopping 50% increase!, Lim reveals.

He acknowledges that this particular cave was a little different as it was owned by an individual and hence easier to control access and monitor the situation and there is no reason to suspect why similar practices in other areas cannot achieve the same results.

From established records, the swiftlet population of Niah has declined from a high of 1,700,000 in 1935 to less than 65,000 by 2002, almost a 96% decrease, despite the intervention of the government in 1989 to completely halt all nests collection which lasted until 1996.

Realising the failure of the plan with the ban on collection, the government reverted the management of the nest-yielding caves back to the licensees which did not bring about any success either for the bird population continued to experience a decline.

In 2001, the Niah National Park Special Park Committee (SPC) was formed which was to play an advisory role in the management of Niah by disseminating knowledge and information regarding the parks management as well as building better understanding and rapport among the various shareholders of the park.

The Cave Manager cum Trader Concept (CMT) is a multi-pronged approach, taking into consideration the customary rights and welfare of the licensees, cooperation and support from the bird nest traders as well as the setting up of an independent watchdog body to monitor, counter-check and balance the licensee-traders relationship for the sustainable use and conservation of the swiftlet population at Niah, explains Dr Lim.

The cave managers are paid a salary and profit from the harvest but have to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring sustainable exploitation and long-term survival the swiftlet.

They also ensure that policies and recommendations of the Forest Department are implemented on the ground and to settle potential disputes that may arise,Ó he explains further on the CMT.

From our recent observations, there is optimism that the population of the swiftlet population at Niah will be on the upswing by next year when the cycle is complete.

This will be good for all parties concerned as everyone benefits and the bird population will continue to prosper there, he says.

As for the population of the swiftlet to reach the same density as in the early century, that is almost impossible as so much has changed over the years, he said clearly.

The environment will play a significant role in determining the actual number of bird that can be sustained as the carrying capacity has a limit, Dr Lim stresses.

Presently we are still not certain of their foraging range and where they go but certainly the changing landscape will have an impact on their figures.

That is why the proposal to establish parks and nature reserves should be fully supported as only by preserving these natural areas can we ensure that wildlife will continue to flourish in their natural environment.