The harvesting of these bird nests is a hazardous job. The nests are collected from the high, dark cave walls by young collectors who have the skills and guts to climb the height.
The swiftlets build their nests inside the caves hundred of meters high up.
In Madai Caves, there are 2 directions to reach the bird nests - from the cave floor or from the cave roof.
The highest cave ceiling is 200 meters high. A height too extreme for using just bamboo poles to reach the top. But the collectors have an easier and more economical way - that is to enter the cave where the swiftlets birds enter - the many small openings on the top of the cave and hill. Using long ropes securely fastening one's end to rocks and big trees outside the opening, the collectors will climb down onto the cave.
Those collectors approach from the ground will use bamboo poles, ropes or bamboo ladders attached to steep walls. These are equally stunning.
This is a traditional occupation of the Idahan people and this skill of nest collecting is passed down from generation after generation. But now, recent Malaysian economy successfully brought a better living by bringing up a better educated young generation who seek a better and more secured profession in towns and cities.
Collectors climb up on shaky bamboo ladders in total darkness caves to “mine” the nests.
Naked eyes could not see them working up there, we can only see bright lights moving high up the cave walls. The above 2 images are from a same photo. The left picture is the original photo showing how dark it still is even though after using a powerful flash. The right is after using Adobe Photoshop to brighten it up reviewing the bamboo ladder and ropes hanging high up 100 meters above. Only those guys with great courage are able to reach such unreachable rocks at that distant height.
To reach the nests 100 meters above, bamboo-rattan ladders with wood rungs are hung from the ceiling anchored by gaps in the cave wall. At the top of the ladders, collectors fasten themselves to the bamboo with safety belts. Sunlight from the main entrance is dim and could not reach them, their alternative light source is their battery powered head-torch worn on their heads. Nests are scraped from the wall and put into a basket hung on the ladder. Occasionally, a few of nests would miss the basket and dropped off and down to the cave floor 100 meters below where dozen of Fortune Seekers would fight their way to captures this "treasure" dropping from above.
Above : One of the collectors who climbed the high wall in 1st and 2nd photo. Climbing up itself is stunning but how to bring their ladders up and securely faster to the cave wall is another wonder.
Photo below: Bamboo ladders are laid neatly at cave entrance ready to be carried up to the cave wall to reach greater height.
Nest Collectors collects any valuable nest they can reach. If there are eggs or babies in it, they just removed them and throw them down to meet their fate. No one seems guilty of leaving these immature small bird dead but keen to rob off their nest constructed with that of salivas and feathers. Here, the value of God’s creation redefines. A case where a living creature's own discharged saliva is far more treasured then its life. How do you feel when you come to such place on earth where you spit your saliva to the ground to see swarm of human rush to grab and fight for that bit of your discharge but however leaving you dying without any one sympathy for you life? This shows how valuable these nests are - more valuable than priceless lives where they risk their own lives to get hold of these bunch of faeces and feathers.
Market for bird nests are booming. Prices have doubled in recent years. China has remain the biggest importer of birds' nests. The value of the nest has become so great that collectors no longer wait until eggs or chicks depart the nest. Both are simply discarded and the nest taken. See photo below.
Photo above: A baby swiftlet and its nest scraped off from the wall. This chick, being not yet matured enough to fly, will die of starvation. While this baby swiftlet is left abandoned in Madai Cave floor to die, its nest would be sold at around Rm20.00 to a middle man who full time works doing a cleaning process carefully by removing all the feathers leaving behind the white thin gelatinous strand for exporting to China. By the time this raw unprocessed nest reached the Shanghai restaurant in the form of clean dried and white delicacy, the cost can easily reach Rm200.
A fully grown Swiftlet is about the size of a sparrow. They are found in Southeast Asia. During the breeding season, the male swiftlet bird would regurgitates a long, thin gelatinous strand from salivary glands under its tongue to wound into a half-cup nest which bonds like quick-drying cement to the inside of a cave wall. The female would lay 1 ege which takes 1 month to hatch.
The nests are tasteless and so are usually served in soup mixed with chicken, spices and sauce. For centuries in China these nests have been considered nourishing as well as a booster of health for the sick and aging; they are even believed to be an aphrodisiac.