The Nest Gatherers of Pabellon Island
Eduardo ‘Dado’ Gueriba, the 45-year-old community leader of Maytegued Island, has been climbing the craggy rock faces of Pabellon since he was six. In the early morning, Pabellon’s cliffs tower above a calm greenish-blue sea. Small wooden huts perched on boulders by the shoreline are dwarfed by giant limestone rock formations.
Dado arrives on the shore of Pabellon with a group of men from Maytegued. They leave their outrigger boat and set out along the beach carrying bundled ropes and bamboo poles. These are the nest gatherers of Pabellon – skilled climbers, locally known as busyadores, looking for birds’ nests.
The nests, made by Aerodramus fuciphagus swiftlets from hardened strands of their gummy saliva, are among the world’s most expensive animal produce consumed by humans. They are typically made into ‘bird’s nest soup’, a Chinese delicacy renowned for a multitude of health benefits, such as raising libido and boosting the immune system. On Pabellon, high quality nests are sold for PHP 180,000 ($3,785) per kilo.
Gonzalo Ponce de Leon, 67 years old, is the oldest climber here and has been gathering nests since he fourteen. “When we used to come here in the 1950s there were only ten or fifteen climbers, now there are more than fifty,” he recalls. “In those days we sold the nests to a Chinese man from Manila, who gave us roughly PHP0.12 per kilo. The men would make around PHP35 during each harvest, which was considered a good income at that time.”
Nest gathering is risky – the climbers are mostly barefoot and use only bamboo poles and a few ropes to reach caves hundreds of metres up. Inside the caves the busyadores continue their ascent on slippery rocks in the darkness. Nowadays most climbers have small flashlights, however traditionally they found their way carrying burning tree sap, locally called saleng, wrapped in palm leaves.
“Most of us prefer free-climbing,” says Gueriba, whose grandfather taught him how to navigate Pabellon’s caves “but there are many areas where the climbers need ropes or bamboo to scale sheer rock faces or cross gaps in the cave walls”. The rugged limestone can be perilous.
“Some rocks are loose so you must ensure that each one you hold onto is secure. During my lifetime alone, two men have fallen to their death,” he says. “When my nephews climb with me, I warn them to never remove their hands if they are not absolutely sure of the rock beneath their feet.”
Located in Taytay Bay, in northern Palawan, Philippines, Pabellon consists of two limestone karst islands sculpted by water over millions of years, creating a labyrinth of intricate cave complexes. These caves are home to edible-nest swiftlets (locally called balinsasayaw), who inhabit the caves from December until August each year to mate, build nests and produce offspring.
The harvest takes place from December until June and, during these months, the busyadores climb up to the caves every twenty to fifteen days. In June and July the swiftlets are left to re-build their nests and produce offspring. Most busyadores are local Cuyonon and Tagbanua men from the neighbouring island of Maytegued, where climbing skills have been passed from father to son through hundreds of generations. Each cave is traditionally cared for by a particular family, who is responsible for gathering the nests.
In 1920, the local government started selling concessions for harvesting Pabellon’s nests directly to traders, most of whom were Chinese. But in the late 1990s the climbers began finding traces of blood in the nests, a possible indication that the bird population was under stress.
“It was difficult during the time of the Chinese concessioners as they had complete control over the harvest,” remembers Gueriba. “They wanted to make as much money as possible and forced us to keep climbing and collecting nests even after the birds had laid their eggs.” The population suffered during that time, as the birds could not reproduce successfully. The climbers explained to the concessioners that some nests must be left for the birds to hatch their eggs but they ignored the advice and forced the climbers to collect them all.
So in 2005, the busyadores formed a cooperative and bought the concession for Pabellon from the local government. Since then a more sustainable harvesting system has been in operation, run by the traditional owners of the caves.
“Since we formed our own cooperative things have been much better,” Gueriba continues. “We are now the ones in control of the harvest. Our income depends on the market value of the nests, rather than on middlemen. We take care of the balinsasayaw population, giving them time to reproduce so that they continue to return to Pabellon each year.”
The climbers now pay a tax of PHP2.6 million ($54,718) to the municipal government every year, 20 percent of which goes to the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development. In return, the municipality helps the busyadores to police Pabellon – a huge challenge since thieves can come in the dead of night, leave their boats far from the island and swim to the shore before climbing up to the caves.
When the climbers arrive on Pabellon in early December they begin cleaning the walls of the caves, removing debris from the previous year so that the swiftlets can build new nests on the clean walls. If left to natural processes, it might be years before the walls were clean enough to provide a suitable nesting area and in this sense the relationship between the busyadores and the balinsasayaw is truly symbiotic.
Arthur Cavalda, 18, is among the most confident of the young climbers. He places a bamboo pole pointing up the cliff in front of him and makes the sign of the cross before deftly lifting himself onto the rocks. Once he has begun his climb he moves quickly, springing from one position to another, eventually entering a cave at the cliff top. He may be young but he is repeating the movements of his forefathers from hundreds of years ago.
Cavalda, here to help his cousins with their harvest, looks completely at home despite his relatively young age. “Climbing comes to me so naturally,” he says. “ I don’t feel fear – it is just my way of life.”