In the past, Mukah that could be reached after a land journey taking some two and half hours from Sibu, is merely a sleepy hollow with very few economic activities.

But the scenario has now changed with the massive migration of the burung walit or swiftlets from Indonesia due to the La Nina meteorological phenomenon and immense forest fires in the republic in the early years of the new millennium.

The real estate value in Mukah and its fringing areas have shot up and the top floor of each shop houses and commercial buildings in this town has been turned into the ranch or home for these birds.

“Before, to get RM30,000 for the top floor of this shop is remote. Since the arrival of the swiftlets, offers came up to as high as Rm200,000.” bird nest entrepreneur John Low told Bernama here.

On Oct 13 in 2005, the government lifted the restriction on bird nest trading apart from acknowledging that the venture has the potential to boost income of the local residents.

NAJIB’S ANNOUNCEMENT

Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak made the announcement after he chaired the 53rd meeting of the National Council on the local governments in Putrajaya.

Apart from Sarawak, bird nest entrepreneurs in the other states are required to obtain the nod from the local authorities before being allowed to create the birds homes.

This is to safeguard the interest of the residents as well as the environment.

However last Oct 14, the Sarawak Forestry Department rangers demolished two bird nest premises in Medan Setiaraya and New Township Mukah, creating a predicament for the bird nest businessmen here.

Chairman for Mukah Birdnest Association, Philip Tiong, said the rangers had not only demolished the premises and seized the bird nests but had also killed the young swiftlets.

This happened even though the swiftlets are a protected species, he said. “We only want the state government to consider issuing us the permit and guidelines for us too adhere to,” said Tiong who called for the Chief Minister to intervene in this issue.

OUT OF BUSINESS

According to Tiong, if the state authorities were adamant in blanketing out the bird nest industry, then many of the bird nest entrepreneurs in the state including 150 members of the association would be out of their business.

Meanwhile the Assistant Minister for Planning and Resource Management, Mohd Naroden Majais was reported to have stated that the birdnest industry comes under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998, Wildlife Protection (Edible Bird Nests) Rules 1998 and Wildlife Protection Rules 1998.

It is all right if the birds live in their natural habitat like inside the caves but they are not allowed in urban areas.

However a Bernama check here found that the buildings used to house the swiftlets are clean and free from noise, just like the other buildings and premises in the town.

The calmness disappears at sundown as the swiftlets, in the tens of thousands, returned to their nests in the buildings.

CLEAN, WELL VENTILATION

This writer was given the opportunity to check out a building used to house thousands of swiftlets and found that the building is clean, well kept and has good ventilation.

“We adhere to the guidelines drawn out by the Veterinary Department,” Tiong said referring to the departments good animal husbandry practices or GAHP certificate.

The GAHP certificate is part of the requirements before one is allowed to venture into the bird nest industry in Sarawak. Clearance is also needed from the Wildlife Protection Department, Land Survey Department and the local authorities.

Industry sources said the GAHP ensures that the industry is well managed apart from preventing the risk of infective diseases like the bird flu.

Last July 5, Housing and Local Government Minister, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan said the rearing of swiftlets is allowed at commercial premises and shop houses but not in housing estates.

MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO

The bird nest trade in this country began more than a century ago with the first recorded harvesting carried out at the Niah Caves in Sarawak in 1878.

Indonesia is the first nation to carry out the commercial trading of bird nests due to the immense value of this commodity.

There are some 10,000 buildings used as the swiftlets ranches nationwide, producing about 12 tonnes of bird nests a month.

The unprocessed bird nests could fetch an average price of RM4,000 per kg and this means the industry is capable of generating RM48 million in turnover a month.

“That is the value of the unprocessed bird nests and the price is 10 times higher after the material is processed and graded for export”, said the industry source that wished not to be named.

MAJOR TOWNS

In Sarawak, the birdnest industry is not limited to Mukah, but also major towns like Kuching, Bintulu, Sarikei and Sibu.

“The swiftlets not only benefit the urban dwellers, but also villagers who leased out their land for the bird nest businessmen earning up to RM700 a month, said a caretaker at one of the swiftlets ranches who wished to be named as Fadhil.

For civil servant Khalil Ali, who had invested RM30,000 to built a birdnest premises on his family-owned land at Kampung Oyak, Mukah, called for the Sarawak government to seek a solution to overcome this confusion over the birdnest industry in the state.

Despite the state governments move to set up five swiftlets eco-parks including two in Daro and Mukah, the bird-nest issue should be viewed objectively.

This is so as the state government has to think of a way to transfer the birds to their new homes without having to demolish the existing some 1,500 premises or culling tens of thousands of the protected swiftlets.

“We want our shop lots to be legalized. Allow us the same rights as accorded to bird nest entrepreneurs in the Peninsula”, said Low.

To this date, the authorities have issued the licence for only two of the bird nests premises.

— BERNAMA