A bird’s nest collector demonstrates how he works his way along a rope at Batu Pute cave on Koh Libong, Trang province. // Photo by Parinya Chawsamun.
A bird’s nest collector demonstrates how he works his way along a rope at Batu Pute cave on Koh Libong, Trang province. // Photo by Parinya Chawsamun.

Scaling high for generations

big read August 20, 2018 05:00

By JINTANA PANYAARVUDH
THE NATION
TRANG

32,629 Viewed

Koh Libong birds’ nest collectors have been climbing cliffs, caves for hundreds of years and are always at hand to help.



BAREFOOT AND with a flashlight on his head, a bird’s nest collector ties himself to a rope line hanging across the cave and then moves up and down the rock face to show how he harvests the nests.

Without any safety gear, the collector can boast of a brave heart – something that’s very important for this job.

He is part of a team of bird’s nest collectors from Koh Libong who made headlines globally last month when they travelled more than 1,600 kilometres from their hometown in the South to help search for the 13 young “Wild Boars” footballers stranded in Chiang Rai’s Tham Luang cave. 

A team of bird’s nest collectors from Koh Libong pose for the camera. // Photo by Jintana Panyaarvudh

It was sheer boldness that prompted the team to join the search-and-rescue operation.

The bird’s nest collectors made their decision within an hour after agreeing that they might be able to help with the operation in the complex cave system, said Alifen Tesnam, an ex-collector who later led the team for the operation. Alifen is now the village head of Moo 7, Ban Sai Kaew.

With their climbing skills honed from scaling sheer limestone cliffs and exploring crevices to collect edible nests made from solidified bird spit, the island’s Thai-Muslims hoped to find a way into the cave.

“We brought only flashlights and not even ropes because we were afraid we wouldn’t be allowed to take the ropes on the plane,” recounted Abdolrawhim Khunraksa, kamnan of Koh Libong sub-district and another team leader.

The 18 members of the nest-harvesting group started each day at around 8am, and took some four to five hours to get into the cave system. They walked some 15 kilometres and climbed up a hill, which lies 1,000 metres above sea level, daily.

During their time there, they had explored as many as 40 openings, but met with a dead-end each time. They had no way of finding out if the opening they had searched was anywhere close to where the trapped children were.

They spent about 11 days hunting for the children and only returned home when the boys were located. 

Abdolrawhim said he was impressed by the generosity of the people he had met at the scene. He also made new friends, including Swedish and British journalists who talked with his team almost every day. Plus he received a phone call from a Thai expat in Sweden, who saw the news and was hugely impressed by what their achievement. 

Last week, Sheikul Islam of Thailand, Aziz Phitakkumpon, presented the team with a plaque of honour and commemorative badges as recognition of their exemplary contribution and compassion.

A bird’s nest collector scales a cliff.  // Photo by Parinya Chawsamun

This is not the first time that this team has helped people. A few years ago, they rescued a shipwrecked Swedish man near their island, and once pulled free a backhoe stuck in the mud in their village. 

“We [Muslims] live in a community. If anything happens, we know we have to help. When I saw the news, I wondered what it would be like if happened to our children,” Abdolrawhim said.

“We do it on behalf of volunteers in the community. We live like brothers and sisters. We help each other without being paid,” Alifen added. 

 

Skills passed down

Collecting bird’s nests has been a centuries-long career choice and has been passed down for several generations of villagers in the Trang Sea, especially on Libong Island, which is just off the coast of Trang province in the South. 

In the past, collectors used to scale the cliffs with a child, eight or nine-years-old, on their back to help collect the bird’s nests, especially when accessing narrow openings, Abdolrawhim, an ex-collector who is retired now, said.

“So people become courageous from a very young age, and gradually they learn a skill before following in their parent’s footsteps to become bird’s nest collectors,” the 49-year-old kamnan said.

In the old days, the collectors used a single thick cord made of rattan to scale up and down caves. These days the collectors tie a thick rope around their waist and between their legs to a main rope, and scale the cave walls with support from other members, who help pull them up if anyone falls down, Alifen explained.

“This job is all about guts. Do you have the guts?” the 50-year-old ex-collector asked with a grin. 

“But when mistakes happen and someone falls, the support team cannot help most of the time,” he added. 

Koh Libong residents have historically collected bird’s nests, and though their island no longer has nests, the collectors seek jobs in other islands in the Trang Sea, Abdolrawhim said.

The collectors find jobs in nearby islands such as Koh Muk, Koh Petra and Koh Laolieng or in neighbouring provinces like Phatthalung, Krabi and Phang Nga, he said.

A bird’s nest collector scales a cliff.  // Photo by Parinya Chawsamun

Bird’s nests are harvested three times a year – February, April and July-August – and each job takes about seven to eight days. Birds usually build their nests in the same place, Abdolrawhim explained. 

When harvesting nests for the third time, we need to wait until the nestlings have flown away, he said. The mother bird usually eats the nest after the chicks have left to replenish her energy. 

Fearing the decline of the nests and swiftlets, the collectors nowadays take care when harvesting the nests.

“We don’t bring along too much stuff,” Ma-an Konglao, a 51-year-old collector, said. “Food scraps leave a smell that could chase the birds away. We also use rechargeable batteries for our flashlights [to avoid electronic waste],” he said.

This industry is surviving thanks to high demand, especially from the Chinese, who believe bird’s nest is good for health. 

Collecting birds’ nests can be lucrative, but is tightly controlled. At one time, Thailand used to export birds’ nest products worth about Bt500 million yearly to China – one of the biggest markets. 

Now companies have an exclusive government concession to collect nests in the Marine Park, and these firms will hire villagers to harvest for them, Abdolrawhim said.

The 30 members of the team normally earn their livelihood from fishing and rubber tapping, but thanks to their skill – handed down from generation to generation – they can earn an extra Bt10,000 per nest harvest. 

A bird’s nest collector scales a cliff.  // Photo by Parinya Chawsamun

Ma-an said this job has not really gone out of fashion, because more teenagers are interested as it helps them earn extra. 

“They can earn up to Bt10,000 per harvest without having to invest anything. They can also pick up tricks of the trade from old and experienced collectors,” Ma-an, whose three sons are also collectors, said. 

Also, the price of each nest depends on its quality. A fresh one will be white, while an old one will be black. The quality of the nest also relies on the cave’s humidity – too humid, it will not be good, if the wall is dry the nest will be good, Abdolrawhim explained.