Recession dulls Chinese appetite for birds' nest

Mon Mar 30, 2009 11:21pm EDT
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By Niluksi Koswanage and James Pomfret

SABAH, Malaysia (Reuters Life!) - Guarding rather than collecting prized swifts' nests in a limestone cave, harvester Asri Mohamed knows first-hand that Chinese consumers are shunning the delicacy as the economic recession bites.

Malaysia is the world's third largest supplier of birds' nests after Thailand and Indonesia, contributing 10 percent of the 210 tonnes, worth up to $4 billion, consumed annually by top buyers China and Taiwan.

The nests are woven by the saliva of the Asian male swift, and when prices went as high as $2,500 a kg (2 lbs) last year, teams would work round-the-clock to prise them off the walls of the 25-storey high Goamantong cave in eastern Sabah state.

Now, as the global economic recession reduces the appetite for luxury items in China and beyond, Asri and other harvesters spend most of their time outside the cave, smoking and keeping an eye out for thieves eager to make off with the nests despite the drop in market prices and demand.

"We are stuck. There are many birds' nests to collect but we have been told by our bosses to take less because prices are falling and people from China are losing interest," Asri said.

Consumers in China and Taiwan prize swifts' nests as a health tonic, aphrodisiac and status symbol, earning the delicacy its "caviar of the east" nickname. Goamantong nests are among the most exquisite in the world as there are less impurities like feathers and grit, traders say.

Even 15th century Ming dynasty records extol the value of these birds' nests that were only to be consumed by the emperor, historians say. Chinese junks traveled upstream to the Goamantong cave so frequently for the nests that locals named the waterway Kinabatangan, or Chinese river.

Swifts' nests from Goamantong cave now account for a tiny fraction of Malaysia's annual shipments of 21 tonnes, exporters said, with the bulk coming from commercial birds nest farms that connoisseurs say lack the texture of those in the wild.   Continued...