Published: Saturday 15 April 2000

A fierce tussle has ensued in southern Thailand, with environmentalists and wildlife activists determined to save the swiftlet, a sparrow-like bird, from the jaws of poachers and tour operators. While in Thailand the habitat of swiftlets is restricted to the spectacular limestone caves of the Phang-Nga Bay, they are also found in Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Swiftlets use glutinous saliva to design cup-shaped nests for their offsprings. This saliva, a tasteless jelly of zero nutritional value, is mixed with a broth to prepare the bird's nest soup -- also known to tourists and food buffs as "caviar of the East." But this exotic soup -- attributed with dubious characteristics like cure for lung disease and sexual enhancement -- has posed a serious threat to the existence of these birds. The swiftlet builds it nest high on cave ceilings in the Phang-Nga Bay.

But this fails to deter poachers. They climb bamboo ladders to snatch nests even before the eggs are laid. They even show no compassion in throwing away baby birds, acts that are severely condemned by animal activists.

Regardless of the alarming decrease in swiftlet population, millions of nests from Southeast Asia are sent to Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. According to Alex Yau, working at the Hong Kong office of the World Wide Fund for Nature ( wwf ), the region has imported 985 tonnes of swiftlet nests valued at us $700 million between 1992 and 1998.

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