By S M Mohd Idris, President of Sahabat Alam Malaysia
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) supports the Penang State Government’s call to ban swiftlet farming, especially in the heritage sites. SAM has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the establishment of swiftlet hotels, both here and in urban areas (even if set up away from residential locations). While owners of swiftlet hotels are laughing all the way to the bank, SAM is certainly not amused as these unethical entrepreneurs cash in on the prominent demand for bird’s nests.
While economic arguments for a bird’s nest industry may be strong, the need to protect heritage architecture from the deleterious effects of this industry is not so easily disregarded. In an environment of closed windows and doors with only small openings for the birds to fly through, accumulation of moisture hastens the decay of brick walls, timber ceilings and plaster, which can lead to termite infestation. Bird droppings also cause destruction of building materials and interior ornamentation.
At present, no laws exist preventing the rearing of swiftlets in shophouses and abandoned buildings, nor do any exist requiring proper management of nests and other factors that indirectly affect the birds. Guidelines by the Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) do exist, however adherence to them is entirely optional. The push by certain Western countries to protect swiftlets under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has failed due mostly to opposition by Southeast Asian countries that would face monetary losses should the convention’s dictates be enforced.
Exploitation of swiftlet nests is another area of concern. It was revealed by a farm operator that nest operators harvest nests every two weeks. Swiftlets will make a second nest if the first is collected but not all will make a third if the second is collected. As such, no studies have been done on the impact of harvesting to the swiftlets themselves as studies would depress reproduction and lead to potential monetary loss by the industry. Overzealous collectors may also snatch nests away before eggs are laid, and baby birds are sometimes thrown away, acts that are vehemently criticized by animal welfare activists.
There have been many reports and complaints made to the Municipal Council in the past on the health hazards of swiftlet rearing to neighbouring bouses, but nothing has ever been done to halt this irresponsible industry. It is thus commendable that Penang Local Government and Traffic Management Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow has taken action against illegal swiftlet nest farming in Penang.