Bugs, bird’s nests and bats. Oh My!
The Gomantong Caves are situated in the Sandakan district of Malaysian Borneo. The caves are famous for being home to, among other things, Indian swiftlets who build their nests on the walls.
These cup-shaped nests, made from the saliva of the male birds, are harvested, cleaned and then sold to produce “delicacies” such as Bird’s Nest Soup, desserts, beverages and even candy.
It’s a lucrative industry, driven by the demand of the Chinese market and the belief that the consumption of the nests (specifically the white nests) improves longevity, increases well being and keeps you healthy into old age.
This demand has lead to a black market trade that often kills the birds and their chicks to get its hands on their homes. This rather mercenary process has contributed to the global decline of the swiftlet population.
The illegal harvesting of nests is such a problem in Borneo that Gomantong has 24 hour security posted inside and outside the cave system. Those permitted to harvest here do so under the watchful eye of the Sabah Wildlife Department. Still, it’s an enormously risky process.
A a rope and pulley winch system hauls men up to 60 metres into the air to ethically gather the nests. A fall from these heights would be, if not deadly, then back breaking, yet, for these men, as with the illegal harvesters, the money that can be made from the venture far outweighs the danger. 1kg of nests (at the time of writing) sells for $2,300 dollars online.
But before you start thinking about a career change, it should be noted that in addition to neck breaking heights the walls of Gomantong are alive with cockroaches and cave centipedes.
This is a cave centipede:
You might have noticed that I didn’t take this photo. There’s a very good reason for that. You see, aside from the creepy crawlies inside the cave, there is guano (bat excrement) everywhere. Sure, there is an elevated wooden walking platform for visitors to wander he cave system, unfortunately both it and its handrail are coated in a thick, slippery layer of droppings and urine.
On my visit I barely used my camera for the fear that, while I was posing my ass off next to an insect that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Aliens-esque Sci-Fi Horror, I’d lose my footing and plummet into the grey, putrid slag below.
All those potentially Instagram-able moments gone, like tears in rain.
After my trip to the caves, and once I had washed my shoes and burnt my clothes, I had the opportunity to try bird’s nest cookies, drinks and desserts at the massive shopping malls of the capital city of Kota Kinabalu.
There was also no shortage of restaurants selling the soup and souvenir stores selling freeze dried nests and candies.
In the end, though, I didn’t partake.
Maybe it was the knowledge that by doing so I’d be contributing to the the decline of a species.
Or maybe I just didn’t feel like eating bird spit that week.
I did, however, ask a salesman at one of the souvenir stores what the candy tasted like.
He replied, “Eh, it’s a little bitter.”
Which, in light of everything I’d learnt that week, sounded pretty underwhelming.