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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nest Selling: Deadly Business for Both Man and Bird

KOHSI-KOHHAH, Thailand -- A man climbs up a fragile bamboo pole to the roof of a cave. A candle in his mouth and one hand clutching the pole, he reaches out and gently scrapes a small bird's nest from the rockface.

The swift's nest falls to the ground where it is collected and eventually ends up in an expensive medicine or soup.

The nest-gatherers of Kohsi-Kohhah islands in southern Thailand are trusted workers in a million-dollar industry.

"Sometimes I feel sorry for the birds because they have to build a nest three times before they can lay their eggs. But it's good money, I do the job," said nest-gatherer Manop Thepram, 37.

Manop is one of 20 gatherers working on the islands in Songkhla lagoon, where millions of the swifts live and build their valuable nests in about 100 caves.

Pairs of swifts use their glutinous saliva to build the nests during the March-August mating season.

The nests are collected three times a season, twice before the eggs are laid and again after the eggs have hatched and, in theory, the young birds have flown away. Most nests are exported to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Japan.

The first-built nests are white and the most precious due to the purity of the swifts' saliva. After they are taken, the birds build another nest which is again snatched away before the birds can lay their eggs.

Manop shows a group of visitors a "black nest," the lowest-quality nest, gathered at the end of the season and darkened by the feathers of the hatchlings that lived in it.

"There is also blood in the saliva when they build the third nest because their saliva is drying up by then," one worker explained.

Laem Thong Bird's Nest Company, which operates on the islands, says it collects the black nests only after the baby birds can fly but some workers said eggs and hatchlings were often destroyed.

Environmentalists also believe the business is putting the species at risk.

"The steep price of the birds' nests, especially the ones here which are the best quality, is endangering the species itself," said Parichart Thaweeburus of Prince of Songkhla University.

The company admits that the bird population is falling significantly.

"Judging from production we have seen a 35 percent drop in the quantity of birds' nests over the past 10 years," said Song Saetang. He declined to reveal any other information about the operation.

Some nest-gatherers and other workers estimate that the company harvests 1,100 to 1,300 kilograms of nests annually, fetching a local price of up to 50,000 baht ($2,000) per kilogram.

The company protects its profits ruthlessly, employing a small army of security guards armed with automatic rifles who have a reputation for shooting at suspected nest-poachers on sight -- much to the anger of the local community.

"The company had made off with millions of baht from a natural resource created in our community and then kill people who also have a right to share it," said Charern Pakdi.

Charern's brother, Suwan, 52, was shot dead on one of the islands just hours before reporters arrived for a recent visit. The doctor who examined the body said he was riddled with M-16 rifle fire.

"I emptied my magazine," reporters overheard one suspect telling police.

The guards have in recent years shot and killed at least 18 people suspected of being poachers. So far, no one has been punished for the deaths.

"These people act like they have a license to kill," said one villager on a nearby island. "The killing will continue as long as there are birds' nests."