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.