The Malaysian government projects output to grow to 500 tonnes by 2020 (AFP Photo)

SITIAWAN, Malaysia — Thousands of swiftlets erupt from their roosts, swirling into a brightening dawn in a riotous ritual that announces the start of each day in this coastal town in northern Malaysia.

But the tiny birds emerge not from natural cave roosts, but from a purpose-built swiftlet “farm” resembling an industrial building that affords easy access to the valuable nests used in bird’s nest soup.

Such farms are at the centre of a Malaysian effort to capitalise on the growing world popularity of the soup, a delicacy believed in Chinese society to be an aphrodisiac and provide a range of health benefits.

Strong demand for the so-called “Caviar of the East” from newly wealthy consumers in China and India and in the Middle East is fuelling unprecedented new growth in a world market estimated by Malaysia’s government at more than $6 billion.

“The Middle East is our new market. They are feeding bird’s nest soup to race horses to make them run faster,” said Loke Yeu Loong, managing director of the swiflet farm in the rural coastal town of Sitiawan.

“At the moment, demand outstrips supply.”

The cup-shaped collections of twigs are held together by dried swiftlet saliva, which is made into a gelatinous soup credited in China with everything from alleviating asthma to arresting the ageing process.

In 2009, world production reached 3,750 tonnes, 75 percent of which came from Indonesia.

Thailand and Malaysia, where the birds also are found in huge numbers, produced most of the rest.

But safety and environmental concerns have forced a move away from the caves and disused buildings where swiftlets roost, and Malaysian harvesters are today building thousands of surrogate homes for the birds.

Loke opened his first dedicated swiftlet farm in 2009 — several block-long rows of neatly designed three-storey buildings with sealed doors and windows and hollow interiors — outside Sitiawan in Perak state.

Enticed by swiftlet mating songs played from loudspeakers, the birds enter via small openings and build their nests.

From just a few hundred individual bird houses in the late 1990s, there are now about 50,000 in Malaysia, according to the government.

Malaysia produced about 275 tonnes of bird’s nest in 2010, worth some 1.5 billion ringgit ($470 million), and the government projects output growing to 500 tonnes by 2020.

Demand has pushed the average price of a kilogramme of Malaysia bird’s nest to 4,000 ringgit today, four times what it was 20 years ago.

“Obviously at present we can’t meet the huge growing consumer demand for edible bird’s nest,” Loke said.

His firm, Swiftlet Eco Park, is now developing or planning 14 other sites nationwide and aims to become Malaysia’s top producer.

The Malaysian industry hatched in the 1980s but gained momentum after the 1997 Asian financial crisis left many property developments abandoned or unfinished.

Resourceful entrepreneurs capitalised on this — and the lack of industry regulation — to use many such sites as swiftlet farms.

But they ran into opposition amid complaints that the recorded bird song disturbed human residents and that droppings posed a potential health threat in the avian flu era. Calls for regulation have grown louder.

As a result, government officials say authorities have stopped approving new farms in urban areas and that legislation expected soon would ban them except in rural zones.

Environmentalists criticise the repeated snatching of the birds’ diligently built nests, often before they can lay their eggs, as cruel to the swiftlets.

“Our major concern is the distress caused to the birds,” said Mohamad Idris, president of the Malaysian branch of Friends of the Earth.

Mohamad Noorhisham, head of swiflet supervision for Malaysia’s veterinary services agency, said legislation expected next year would ensure safe, sustainable and bird-friendly development of the industry.

Among other things, it will outlaw harvesting of nests containing chicks.

“We want the industry to be environmentally and people-friendly,” he said.

But with the birds plentiful — the government does not have precise figures — and processed nests fetching high prices, the growth looks to continue.

Five years ago, swiftlet farmer John Peor had a handful of the purpose-built structures.

Today, his firm Yenzheka Technology has more than 60, producing about 200 kilogrammes of nests per month for export to Hong Kong and China. He hopes to raise monthly output to 500 kilogrammes.

“Buyers book in advance. I sell processed bird’s nest for anything between 8,000 to 15,000 ringgit per kilogramme, depending on the grade,” he said.

Producers and veterinary officials say that while concerns must be addressed, farming is more sustainable.

“In cave harvesting, where they bid huge sums of money to secure the right to harvest the bird’s nest, they need to harvest as many nests as possible,” Loke said, adding that meant chicks or eggs were often destroyed.

Loke says his firm does not destroy chicks or eggs, viewing them as the seeds of future growth.