TED Case Studies

Swifts and Trade

          CASE NUMBER:          66 
          CASE MNEMONIC:      SWIFT
          CASE NAME:          Swift Protection


1.        The Issue

     Trade of Swiftlet nests began in China during the T'ang
Dynasty (A.D. 618-907).  China is the prime consumer of a soup made
from these nests (bird's nest soup), which is considered the
"caviar of the East" until a policy of austerity under communist
rule discouraged such extravagance.  Recent relaxation of controls
in the PRC has led to a surge in demand for Bird's Nest Soup. 
China is importing enormous amounts of ingredients for the soup
from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.  This is now
threatening the swift populations and has led CITES to consider
adding the bird and its nest to its lists of endangered species.

2.        Description

     Chinese have been eating the nest of the Swiftlet, a bird
about the size of a sparrow found in Southeast Asia and the Indian
Subcontinent, for over 1,000 years.  The Edible-nest, Indian
Edible-nest and Black-nest Swiftlets weave a nest from strands of
saliva: the male regurgitates a long, thin gelatinous strand from
salivary glands under its tongue which is then wound into a half-
cup nest which bonds like quick-drying cement to the inside of a
cave wall.  Swiftlet nests are (usually) carefully removed from
the cave wall.  The nests are relatively tasteless and so are
usually served in soup or jelly, mixed with chicken, spices, sauce
or sweets.  For centuries in China these nests have been considered
nourishing and tasty as well as a booster of health for the sick
and aging; they are even believed to be an aphrodisiac.  

     The harvesting of Swiftlet nests is a potentially hazardous
occupation.  They are collected from high, dark caves by special
collectors who climb up and balance on bamboo poles attached to
steep cliffs.  These cliffs reach hundreds of feet in height.  This
is a traditional occupation and the skill of nest collection is
generally passed down from father to son.

     Biochemist Kong Yun-Cheng at the Chinese University of Hong
Kong conducted a chemical analysis of the soup which revealed that
there is a water-soluble glyco-protein in the nest which promotes
cell division within the immune system.  However, it is destroyed
during the cleaning process.  Therefore, the soup is actually of
low nutritive value.

     Nevertheless, the market for these nests is booming.  Prices
have doubled in recent years.  China was traditionally the biggest
importer of birds' nests until the Communist revolution when the
soup was frowned upon as a bourgeois extravagance (see SHARK case). 
Today Hong Kong is the biggest official consumer of birds' nests,
importing about 100 tons (grossing about $25 million) annually.  In
Hong Kong 55 pounds of top quality white nests (the most prized)
can be worth $50,000.  The value of the nest has become so great
that harvesters no longer wait until eggs or chicks depart the
nest.  Both are simply discarded and the nest taken.  This practice
has decimated many younger bird populations in some areas.

     Not all nests are created equal.  Black nests are the lowest
grade of Swiftlet nest since they must be cleaned to remove
feathers.  They are considerably less expensive than white nests. 
The nests are so valued that shipments are usually shrouded in
secrecy for fear of hijackers.  It is believed that there is a
"world kingpin" or at least a key group of brokers in Kowloon, Hong
Kong who control much of international trade in Swiftlet nests. 
This kingpin is supposed to have contracts with governments, kings,
princes and private owners of islands.

     The rising price and rising demand for these nests have
resulted in a decline in the swiftlet population.  Poachers and the
cutting down of forests where Swiftlets feed contribute to the
decline.  Indonesia is the biggest supplier of swiftlet nests with
Thailand ranking second, followed by Vietnam, Singapore, Burma,
Malaysia, southern India and Sri Lanka.  In most nest-producing
countries swiftlet colonies are dwindling.  Kong Yun-Cheng argues
that if harvesting continues at its current rate the species may
die out in 5 to 10 years.

     Nest harvesters in Indonesia have developed the practice of
"farming" which entails buying up houses with colonies of Mossy-
nest Swiftlets which are cross-fostered: the eggs of White-nest
Swiftlets are placed in these nest colonies.  Once mature the
White-nest Swiftlets return to the house and establish a colony. 
While Indonesian nest traders claim that a third of nests exported
from Indonesia come from these farms, researchers of the World Wide
Fund for Nature believe the farms produce far less.

     While the Edible-nest and Black-nest Swiftlet are not yet on
the endangered species lists of either CITES or the IUCN, there are
measures which attempt to protect them.  Supplier countries have
domestic legislation to regulate importing/exporting, hunting,
poaching, and selling of Swiftlet nests.  For example, since 1934
there has been an ordinance in Sarawak, Malaysia which permits the
nests to be harvested only every 75 days.  Currently in Sabah only
2 harvests per year of White-nest Swiftlets are allowed.  Despite
policies to protect the bird their numbers continue to decline,
probably a result of illegal trade which counts for a substantial
percentage of harvested nests.  The World Wide Fund for nature
is currently preparing a proposal for the 1994 meeting of the
Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Flora
and Fauna (CITES) which will be held in the United States.  The
proposal will recommend that the Swiftlet species be placed on
CITES' Appendix II (threatened species).

3.        Related Cases

     MIGRATE case
     BIRDS case
     TIMOWL case
     CRANE case
     SHARK case

     Keyword Clusters         

     (1): Trade Product            = FOOD
     (2): Bio-geography            = TROPical
     (3): Environmental Problem    = Species Loss Air [SPLA]

4.        Draft Author: Jeanine MacKay

B.        LEGAL Clusters

5.        Discourse and Status:  AGREEment and INPROGress

6.        Forum and Scope:  CITES and MULTIlateral

     CITES is considering regulations on trade in bird's nests.

7.        Decision Breadth: 125 (CITES signatories)

8.        Legal Standing:  TREATY

C.        GEOGRAPHIC Clusters

9.        Geographic Locations

     a.   Geographic Domain : ASIA
     b.   Geographic Site   : Eastern Asian [EASIA]
     c.   Geographic Impact : CHINA

     The bird is found in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the
Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Singapore, India, and Sri Lanka.

10.       Sub-National Factors:  NO

     Local leaseholders can buy exclusive rights from the
government to harvest nests in certain areas.  These leaseholders
may impose their own restrictions within their harvesting areas.

11.       Type of Habitat:  TROPical

D.        TRADE Clusters

12.       Type of Measure: Import Ban [IMBAN]

13.       Direct vs. Indirect Impacts: DIRect

14.       Relation of Measure to Environmental Impact

     a.  Directly Related     : NO
     b.  Indirectly Related   : YES  FOOD 
     c.  Not Related          : NO
     d.  Process Related      : YES  Species Loss Air [SPLA]

15.       Trade Product Identification:  FOOD

16.       Economic Data

     To some local communities the income from swift nest can be
substantial.  Most income is probably made through intermediaries.

17.       Impact of Measure on Trade Competitiveness:  BAN

     An import ban would cut off 100 percent of legal trade, but
may not prevent substantial illegal trade.

18.       Industry Sector:  FOOD

19.       Exporter and Importer:  MALAYsia and CHINA

     The leading importers of bird's nest soup ingredients was  
Hong Kong ($25 million).  Large amounts are believed to be trans-
shipped to China.  Several other Asian countries are also
significant importers.

E.        ENVIRONMENT Clusters

20.       Environmental Problem Type:  Species Loss Air [SPLA]

21.       Name, Type, and Diversity of Species 

     Name:          Swiftlet
     Type:          Animal/Vertibrate/Birds
     Diversity:     158 birds per 10,000 km/q (Malaysia)

     There are three species targeted by trade in edible nests:
Aerodramus fuciphagus or Edible-nest (white-nests), Aerodramus
unicolor or Indian Edible-nest, and Aerodramus maximus or Black-

22.       Resource Impact and Effect:  HIGH and PRODuct

     The farming of swiftlets has grown enormously and has a
variety of implications.  Perhaps one-third of swiftlet-product
trade now comes from farms.

23.       Urgency and Lifetime:  SHORT and 5-10 years

     "One aspect of the trade which urgently requires looking at is
the 'farming' of swiftlets in Indonesia.  People are buying upon
houses with colonies of mossy-nest swiftlets and then cross-
fostering by placing white-nest swiftlets in these nests."  It
usually does not work and takes place in Java.

24.       Substitutes:  SYNTHetic products

     Synthetic substitutes for swift nest are becoming available. 
However, there is still a desire for the actual product.

VI.       OTHER Factors

25.       Culture:  YES

     Bird's Nest Soup has been a part of Chinese culture for 1,000
years.  Increasing wealth in the Asian region along with the big
increase in price of a bowl of bird's nest soup has made Swiftlet
nests the `caviar of the East.'  While it is possible to find
substitutes to thicken soup, it will be difficult to take away the
allure of Bird's Nest Soup as a status symbol.

26.       Trans-Border:  NO

27.       Rights:  NO

28.  Relevant Literature

Campbell, Bruce and Lack, Elizabeth.  A Dictionary of Birds. 
     London: Buteo Books, 1985.
de Groot, Roy Andries.  "On the Trail of Bird's Nest Soup: Caves,
     Climbs and High Stakes."  Smithsonian 14 (September 1993).
Summers, Diane.  "Dark World of Gourmet Soup."  International
     Wildlife 22 (January/February 1992).
Lau, Amy.  International Trade in Swiftlet Nests with Special
     Reference to Hong Kong.  TRAFFIC International.
Melville, D.S., Personal communication, Executive Director, World
     Wildlife Fund, Hong Kong, November 11, 1993.
The World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong is preparing a
     proposal for the next CITES meeting to have the issue
     listed on the Convention's Appendix II (threatened


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