When conservationists try to save nature by creating or extending reserves, they often do so by robbing the livelihoods of the people who live off of a natural resource (in environmental activist parlance such people are usually called 'poachers'). Over the past few decades, this
discourse that nature can only be saved by keeping humans out of it has increasingly become dominant. But a landmark conservation project to save the Edible-nest swiftlet launched in the Andaman and Nicobar islands eighteen years ago upset this polarization we have become used to by arguing that the only way to save the Edible-nest swiftlet might be by commercially exploiting it. But the project has all but ground to a halt. There are many reasons but major ones would be the limits inherent in any bureaucracy, administrative bungling, a lack of interest and funding and the exploitation of daily wage labourers.
The Edible-nest swiftlet is a small bird about 12 cm in length and weighing 10 to 12 grams. In India it is found only in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Apart from India it is also found in China, Singapore and throughout Southeast Asia (including Brunei and East Timor).The Edible-nest swiftlet belongs to a family of birds called Apodidae. Podia is the greek word for legs so apodidae roughly translates to that which has no legs. It is not that the Edible-nest swiftlet has no legs, rather it has weak legs that makes it impossible for it to perch like most birds. However Edible-nest swiftlets have very strong claws that allow them to cling to vertical surfaces such as rock ledges, an adaptation that has allowed the Edible-nest swiftlet to live in limestone caves alongside bats, safer in the darkness of the cave from most predators. The Edible-nest swiftlet is one of only two bird species in the world to use echolocation to navigate in the dark. Like other swifts and swiftlets, the Edible-nest swiftlet can stay up in the air in constant flight for days together without pause or rest, feeding primarily on aerial insects.
Most expensive food
While other swifts and swiftlets and indeed most birds build their nests out of twigs, branches, moss and their own feathers, the Edible-nest swiftlet is unique in that it builds its nests entirely out of saliva. No other material is used. These nests which look like tiny cups (roughly 6 cm across, weighing in the neighborhood of 8-10 grams) take anywhere between 2-3 months to make and are glued to cave walls (the Edible-nest swiftlets saliva acts as a reasonably strong adhesive). It is this biological quirk of building nests entirely out of saliva that has endangered the Edible-nest swiftlet. When harvested, the nest of the Edible-nest swiftlet looks like congealed strands of vermicelli and dissolves easily in water. Since at least the last 400 years, the Chinese and the Chinese diaspora population have been eating nests harvested from Andaman and Nicobar and elsewhere as a delicacy, most often as a boiled opaque white soup. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that birds nest soup can restore complexion, regenerate cells, clear the digestive system and even restore virility. Because so many of these nests are harvested informally and sold on the black market, it is difficult to estimate an accurate market price but currently goldennest.com is selling 75 ml of birds nest soup for $60 (Rs. 3,900 approx) while an Australian company, Natural Nest is selling 900 gm of raw (uncooked) edible nest for $2400 (1,53,900 approx), making the edible nest one of the most lucrative and expensive food items in the world, in the same league as caviar, matsutake mushrooms and truffles.
In 1995, R Sankaran an avian ecologist with SACON (Salim Ali Centre for Natural History and Ornithology) started a comprehensive survey of the Edible- nest swiftlet population in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In 1999, Sankaran published his findings - " the Edible-nest swiftlet continues to breed in about 92% of the caves which had swiftlets in the past, albeit in much reduced numbers. The reduction in the population indicates that it ranks amongst India's most threatened species of avifauna. This species is critically endangered as it has undergone a population reduction of 80% over the last 10 years. The long-term prospects for this species is bleak. Unless urgent measures are undertaken it is likely that the Edible-nest swiftlet will become extinct in most places in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in a few years." During his research Sankaran noticed that of the 253 caves he studied, 5 caves were traditionally 'owned' by Nicobarese families - i.e. the right to exploit these caves belonged exclusively to members of a particular Nicobarese family and that the population of swiftlets in these 'owned' caves was higher than the population of swiftlets nesting in caves freely accessible to all (for instance Sankaran found that caves which were only exploited by just one family of tribals in Nancowry and no one else had seen a population decline of 40-70% over a period of eight years but caves which were exclusively exploited by non-tribals and outsiders in Great Nicobar saw a population decline of 95% over the same period).
As Sankaran explains in 'poaching' of swiftlets "nests are plucked off the walls irrespective of whether or not there are chicks in them, or the size that the nest has attained. The guiding philosophy appears to be that if I don't then somebody else will. In one reported case, a pile of chicks and eggs about a foot or more high was left behind by nest collectors." While 'poachers' sought short term gain, Sankaran found that Nicobarese families with ownership rights viewed the nests as a long term resource pool and thus refrained from taking the nest before the eggs have hatched and the chicks have matured.
Ownership should be with locals
Since the early 1800s swiftlets were being ranched in human built houses but it was only in the latter-half of the twentieth century that the method of house ranching of swiftlets significantly improved and took off first in Indonesia, and then in Malaysia and China. By the time Sankaran published his study of swiftlet population in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in 1999, some 5-6 million swiftlet breeding pairs (swiftlets tend to mate for life) had been successfully ranched in commercial house farms in Indonesia alone. Thus in Indonesia, even as swiftlet populations in the wild continued to dwindle, their population in commercial ranches boomed. Because swiftlets nest in caves that are often difficult to reach and monitor Sankaran came to believe that "the survival of the Edible-nest swiftlet in any part of its range is dependent on the introduction of house farming. In the Indian scenario, it is a crucial ex-situ conservation method whereby not only can the species be saved in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, but it can become of significant commercial importance."
Based on his observation of Nicobarese families, Sankaran also argued that sustainable harvest regimes can succeed only by incentivizing protection: conferring ownership rights of harvesting nests to local villagers who would then have a monetary interest in protecting swiftlet caves from 'poachers'. Sankaran's proposals were eventually accepted. By 2001, local villagers were hired as daily rated mazdoors by the forest department for round the clock survey of swiftlet caves during the breeding season from January to June. Because the Edible-nest swiftlet was a Schedule 1 species under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, selling or dealing in its nests would have been considered illegal. In December 2009 after repeated appeals from the forest department and SACON, the National Board for Wildlife de-listed the swiftlet from Schedule 1 and the forest department in collaboration with SACON built four houses to ranch the swiftlets. But although Sankaran's proposals materialized in letter, they did not materialize in spirit. Of the four swiftlet houses built only one in Tughapur managed to attract 5 or 6 pairs of swiftlets. The rest are still empty.
On 27th May 2014 Divisional Forest Officer S.K. Thomas wrote a letter to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) at Port Blair, appraising him of the status of the project " Artificial swiftlet houses have been constructed…but no fruitful results have come forward. Based on available scientific information modifications and improvements were regularly made as per scientists recommendations but till date the project has not been successful in attracting swiftlet birds for nesting/ roosting." Although S.K. Thomas and some officials of the Forest Department that I spoke to blamed the scientific method, Shirish Manchi, a senior scientist at SACON and a protege of Sankaran who joined the project in 2003 faulted the implementation process rather than the scientific technique or rationale. "Swiftlet houses should ideally be in areas where swiftlets breed andforage. But all the houses built by the forest department were built strictly on forest department land, which may not be in the vicinity of swiftlet foraging areas."
In 2014, the Asian Journal of Agricultural Research published a paper titled "An Overview of the Right Habitat and Suitable Environmental Factors that influence the success of Edible bird nest production in Malaysia." In both the introduction and the conclusion of this rather comprehensive study, the authors cited site selection as the single most important factor in attracting swiftlets. Apart from site selection, the authors also recommended a number of strategies by which a human-built house can be made to mimic a cave. Chief among these was having no windows so it is completely dark inside, having small openings made only at the rear of the house allowing swiftlets to enter and exit for foraging etc. (but keeping all larger predators out), inserting tubes for air circulation but cutting them into an L-shape so there are no crosswinds and installing a music system that plays pre-recorded cave sounds and swiftlet vocalizations so that swiftlets feel at home. Because swiftlets live in a very humid cave environment, the authors also recommended humidifiers and shallow pools of water placed at regular intervals.
I visited one of the four houses in Ramnagar, a short minute's walk from the Forest Department Checkpost. It was a three storey house in a clearing in the forest. Although it had no windows thus blocking out light and had L-shaped tubes for air-circulation, the house had a green corrugated plastic roof that traps heat and in the hotter months of May-June when the swiftlets breed it must be baking hot inside - not an ideal environment for swiftlets who normally live in the damp interior of caves. The wooden floor of the swiftlet house was also rotting and scarcely was I able to take a step without some part of the floor noisily cracking. Also absent were the humidifiers, shallow pools of water and the pre-recorded cave sounds and vocalizations of swiftlets.
Because the swiftlet houses built were less than ideal, SACON scientist Shirish Manchi submitted a plan last year on how to improve and fix the houses. But as of yet no funding has been forthcoming for the project. Arti Chaudhary, Conservator of Forests said "Since the project has not been a success and as you have yourself seen it has attracted no birds, it will be difficult to get it funded. Currently there is even an audit objection pending against it from the Central Audit Department asking why so much money was spent without any fruitful result."
Ashok Kumar Paul, Assistant Conservator of Forests who oversees the project said " I am aware that the houses we built were maybe not perfect but this is the first time we have undertaken this project. Things take time to become successful. Research does not happen in one day. We will have to improve the houses but it will take time. Last two years we applied to the Central Government for funding. But the Wildlife Board gives priority to the protection of Schedule 1 species and since the swiftlet has been taken out of Schedule 1 to commercially farm it, it has been difficult to get funding for it. This year however we are planning to apply for State funds."
Because no funds have been forthcoming, barring the five swiftlets that currently occupy the Tughapur house, the plan to farm swiftlets commercially has all but stalled. Now that they are no longer a Schedule 1 species, Shirish Manchi worries that the swiftlets are more vulnerable than ever. "The only reason the swiftlets were taken out of Schedule 1 was to save the species through sustainable harvesting of the nests for livelihood generation and economic growth of the local people. But that has not happened. Instead now the swiftlets are out of any legal protection system. Anybody can poach their nests and even kill the birds or take their eggs and it will not be considered a crime. Even if you catch someone poaching, no case can be booked against him."
Dangerous working conditions
While reporting this story for Democracy News Live, I had discovered that the 12 Daily Rated Mazdoors (DRMs) hired by the Forest Department to monitor the swiftlet caves had also been grossly exploited. While 7 of the 12 DRMs had worked for five years, five of them had had exceptionally long tenures of more than 13 years, with three of the men having worked continuously from 2001. As Shirish Manchi put it these were men who "had given the better part of their adult lives to protecting the swiftlet."
In Ramnagar, I met 11 of the 12 DRMs and spoke to them about the nature of their work and the circumstances which lead to all 12 of them unanimously deciding to quit the project. "Protecting the swiftlets is a dangerous and risky job. Every year we would be contracted from January until June, the breeding season of swiftlets. Our job was to monitor a total of 28 caves at Pathilevel. Everyday we would have to visit each of these caves and count the number of nests, check if the nests had been tampered with, count the eggs, check the health of the swiftlet and the baby etc. We would note down all these details on a paper and pass on this information to both the Forest Department and Scientists at SACON. Going into the cave itself was always a frightening and scary experience (hum har bar jaan ko haath mein le kar ke jate the). The openings of these caves are often very small. For 20, sometimes 30 feet you have to squeeze your body and wriggle like a snake with your arms raised up and feet pointed straight downward. The caves are pitch black, darker than night and although we had torches while wriggling through the opening there was no space to point it and see where you are going. Sometimes I would feel things brush against my skin and wonder if it was a snake. Part of our job was to protect the swiftlets from predators such as eagles, snakes, and ants (a sizable colony of ants can devour a newly hatched chick) but as you know all of these animals can alsoharm humans. Sometimes we would have to descend some 200-300 feet just on a rope. If by chance a bat had sat on a rock and dislodged it, the rock could have fallen on our heads and killed us instantly. Once or twice there have been tremors while we were in the cave. But from Day 1 we were told that we were completely responsible for ourselves and wouldn't be compensated in case of an accident."
Because there was a risk of nests getting poached at night and because the caves were a good hour and a half, two hours away from their homes in Ramnagar, the DRMs had to spend the entire six months of the swiftlets breeding period in campsites in the forest. "For six months we could not go home, meet our families or even watch television. We just had each other for company. We had no off days. Not even Sunday. Having to stay in the forest for so long was the most difficult part of the job. One of the mazdoors who worked with us, his wife died while he was working in the caves. She had been pregnant and had gone into labour. By the time someone was able to inform him and he rushed home, he found that the hospital had brought back his wife's dead body and left it in the house - both she and the baby had died in childbirth."
"The only reason we took up this job despite all the disadvantages was that we thought eventually we would be made permanent employees of the Forest Department. I have a small plot of land my grandfather left me. Had I stayed back and just worked my land, I would have had a garden of my own by now! Twice I planted supari but both times the planting failed because I had to go away to the caves and no one else at home knows how to take care of them properly." "Because I was away for half the year, I had to take a loan of Rs 50,000 to hire other people to work my own land and now the loan has just been accruing interest. On top of that I have to take care of my wife and two children who are now in class 11 and 10 respectively."
"We used to work day and night. Because somebody had to always patrol at night and keep an eye out for poachers we took to sleeping in shifts. Even though we worked continuously for 6 months in a year, day and night we were paid wages for only eight hours of work, that never amounted to more than 5-6,000 in a month. Who can raise a family and send his children to school on just 6,000? Eventually we were promised a 60% share in all nests that are harvested and sold commercially - as a compensation for all the extra labour we put in, but it never happened."
There is an official record of this promise the mazdoors were made in the same letter I had quoted before - a letter S.K. Thomas, a divisional officer of the Forest Department wrote to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife) at Port Blair. "The DRMs engaged in in-situ conservation sites at Pathilevel and Wrafter's creek for protection of the caves are very much frustrated as they work in a very difficult situation. During their engagement they cannot go home nor can they perform any other work for their families. In return they are getting only seven months daily wages, ration and camping materials which is a meager amount in terms of their sacrifice to the department. Therefore it is suggested to provide incentives from the profit share after selling the nests which have been harvested now."
S.K. Thomas' recommendation was probably based on a proposal that SACON scientist Shirish Manchi had submitted to the National Wildlife Board in 2013. "The next phase of the project was supposed to be based on livelihood generation. The proposal I submitted was for SACON and the Forest Department to setup a co-operative with the DRMs as the main members. All profits made from the sale of the nests was to be primarily distributed amongst the DRMs. A small royalty was to be given to the Forest Department for its contribution and some money was to be pooled back in for the research and study of swiftlets but most of the money was supposed to go to the DRMs" Manchi said.
But Ashok Kumar Paul, the Assistant Conservator of Forests (wildlife) who has been intermittently involved with the project since 2005 said that setting up a co-operative was not that straightforward. "The plan to setup a co-operative is still not off the table but first farming of swiftlets has to be successful in artificial houses. Only then will we have the basis to setup a co-operative, a business venture."
Meanwhile the Forest Department is preparing a tender to auction off 80 kg of edible nest that the DRMs had collected since 2009, when the swiftlets were first taken out of Schedule 1. But none of the proceeds of that auction is likely to go to any of the DRMs who had been working with the Forest Department for so many years because a new team of DRMs has been hired. "We were pressurized to leave. In the 16 years that I have been involved in this project, some 25-30 babus (forest officers) have come but none of them have been as problematic as Nabin Biswas. He was deliberately cruel.
We first asked him if we could shift the campsite closer to the water and he refused. He then started assigning all night patrols without shifts and then in the morning he would ask the same person who had not slept all night to go fetch water. This person would then have to fill up a 20 liter can of water and carry it up an incline to the hilltop where we had made our camp. For many of us our knees stopped working properly after 5-6 years of repeatedly going into the caves and filling up water and carrying it up that incline was one of the most arduous tasks. In the camp because we were not regularly procuring rations (somebody would have to go home to Ramnagar and brings bags of rice, dal etc.) we often used to rely on catching fish so we could have a decent meal. Otherwise the forest just had fruits we could eat, nothing else. But instead of sending the man who knew how to fish, was experienced in fishing, Nabin Biswas would send the man who knew nothing about fishing so of course he would return empty handed. One time I asked him to give me leave to go home because my child was sick and he said 'Are you a doctor? What is the point of going home? You can't help your son. Stay here where you will at least be useful.' Finally in February we all decided it was not worth it to work under Biswas in those conditions and we decided to quit. We made one final appeal to the Divisional Forest Officer in Mayabunder about the conditions of our work. But all he said was 'Okay if you are unable to do this work then fine, leave. Anyway most of you have land and you can make a living farming your own land.' So we left and the Forest Department hired a new team of mazdoors to replace us."
"For the kind of job we were doing we should have at least been considered skilled workers but despite writing letters to everybody - from the Lieutenant Governor to the Member of Parliament to consider us skilled labour we were always only paid the wages of an unskilled labour. Had we been permanent employees of the Forest Department, it wouldn't have been so easy to kick us out because we would have had some rights." But Ashok Kumar Paul, the Assistant Conservator of Forests (wildlife) said that the decision to make the DRMs permanent or consider them skilled instead of unskilled labourers was not upto the Forest Department. "Forest Department does not make the rules. I also know that the DRMs work very hard and have to stay in the forest for months together but there is nothing I can do even if I want to.
Since this is seasonal labour that occurs every year only between January to June or July as government servants we cannot as per the rules hire anybody as permanent labour. Even the wages for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labour is decided by the government so we cannot possibly preferentially pay the DRMs who look after swiftlets any more than the other DRMs we hire."
Binu Kumar, an advocate at the High Court in Port Blair was also of the opinion that the Forest department has no legal obligation to make the labourers permanent. "The mazdoors you speak of have no case. When they were contracted they would have been contracted simply asdaily wage labourers and their contract would have clearly mentioned this." While for the past many decades High Courts have been arbitrating on whether casual labourers can be regularised in their respective states, the Supreme Court in 2006 passed a judgement that effectively ruled out any obligation of the employer to make any casual labour employed permanent.
"It is argued that in a country like India where there is so much poverty and unemployment and there is no equality of bargaining power, the action of the State in not making the employees permanent, would be violative of Article 21 (which guarantees right to life) of the Constitution. But the very argument indicates that there are so many waiting for employment and an equal opportunity for competing for employment must be given to all. In the guise of upholding rights under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, a set of persons cannot be preferred over a vast majority of people waiting for an opportunity to compete for State employment."
"When a person enters a temporary employment or gets engagement as a contractual or casual worker and the engagement is not based on a proper selection as recognized by the relevant rules or procedure, he is aware of the consequences of the appointment being temporary, casual or contractual in nature. Such a person cannot invoke the theory of legitimate expectation for being confirmed in the post when an appointment to the post could be made only by following a proper procedure for selection and in concerned cases, in consultation with the Public Service Commission. Therefore, the theory of legitimate expectation cannot be successfully advanced by temporary, contractual or casual employees. It cannot also be held that the State has held out any promise while engaging these persons either to continue them where they are or to make them permanent. The State cannot constitutionally make such a promise."
Further as regards the DRMs status as unskilled labour, I spoke to B.Chandrachoodan, amember of CPIM and a prominent trade union activist in the islands. "The government provides no clear-cut dictionary like definition of what the words skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled mean. Instead every six months notifications are released which list out which jobs are to be considered skilled, semi-skilled, highly skilled or unskilled (sweeping, crane operator, composting, spreading fertilizer, spreading manure, welder, chowkidar etc) for each government department. Under this cut and dry system more specific or unique jobs such as looking after an endangered bird will likely be left out. Though government departments can submit a recommendation as to which pay scale they find appropriate for a particular job, they have no legal obligation to do so."
At the moment the people who were most passionately involved with the swiftlet conservationprogram are no longer a part of it. The mazdoors who had worked with swiftlets for 16 years were coerced into leaving and because no funding and support has been forthcoming Shirish Manchi and SACON have now turned their attention to two other bird species in the island - the Narcondam hornbill and the Andaman serpent eagle. Neither Shirish Manchi nor any other scientist from SACON has worked on the swiftlet conservation program in the last two years. It appears that there is no easy solution to the problems of the swiftlet conservation program nor is there an easy target to blame for its failures. As the DRMs said, in the 16 years they have worked on this project, some 25-30 forest officers have come and gone. And that in itself is a part of the problem. Each new officer has to pick up where his predecessor left off - learning afresh what swiftlets are and what needs to be done to protect them. Each officer would then bring his own ideas and approach to the project which would then be inherited by a successor with his own way of thinking and doing things and on it goes. This is at the local level. At the national level, the project is stymied by the inherent inability of all bureaucratic systems to accommodate unique or atypical cases because the bureaucratic administrative system in large democracies is setup to meet generic rather than specific needs. This is evident in the functioning of the National Board for Wildlife which because it was setup with the mandate to protect species was hesitant to approve their commercial exploitation. Manchi who was petitioning to de-list the species from Schedule 1 since 2003 said "As early as 2002, a proposal to de-list the species from Schedule 1 was submitted to the National Wildlife Board.
It is strictly forbidden to use any parts or by-products of a Schedule 1 species but since the very beginning it was clear to us that the surest way of saving the swiftlet is through livelihood generation or commercial harvesting of nests. There is a big lobby of scientists that says that no animal product should be harvested. They would ask tiger bones are used in Chinese medicine so should we start breeding tigers? But we always thought of raising swiftlets as being akin to apiculture. The salivary glands of the swiftlet enlarge every breeding season and it builds a new nest every year so there is really no harm done to the birds when their nests are harvested. It is in fact less harmful than milking a cow for its milk." But despite these analogies and the weight of scientific logic, it took Manchi and the Forest Department seven years to convince the National Wildlife Board to adopt an unconventional conservation strategy - save an endangered bird by not legally protecting it but instead allowing it to be intensively farmed for a global market.
The inadequacy of bureaucracy in meeting special needs is also especially evident in theprofessions that the government lists out to decide who is skilled or unskilled (gardener, mason, electrician, booking clerk etc) and the 2006 Supreme Court decision which mandates that all permanent job appointments "should be made only by following a proper procedure for selection and in concerned cases, in consultation with the Public Service Commission". Neither the list nor the Supreme Court judgement could have anticipated or even imagined that someday the particular biological quirk of a cave-dwelling bird to build nests entirely out of saliva will lead to 12 men being hired for six months of every year to work under difficult circumstances and harsh conditions for paltry sums of money because no governmental law and no governmental body can provide for something as spectacularly singular as that.