The Swallow’s Nest Thieves of Palawan
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
The sea-cliffs of Palawan in the western Philippines conceal a priceless treasure: used as an aphrodisiac, a cure for AIDS and a delicacy, just one kilo of it is worth $10,000 in Hong Kong.
The nest of the sea swallow, made of seaweed and saliva, is so precious that the exact location of the bird colony is kept secret by the Tagbanua, the nest harvesters.
They climb, bare-foot and agile, up the jagged cliffs to steal the white caviar of Palawan.
ERIC PASQUIER went with them.
The Palawan archipelago, western Philippines: a hidden Eldorado, a vertical world where the very last “swallows’ nest thieves” gather the caviar of Asia.
To collect the “white gold”- the glue used by the birds to build their nests – the Tagbanua people attack the spiny peaks of the rocky forest that rises from the emerald sea here. Believed to be an aphrodisiac, the fruits of their labour are sold for up to 10,000 dollars per kilo in Hong Kong.
With a wicker basket hanging from his shoulder, the Filipino youth grabs onto a piece of the sharp rock. His body is suspended between sea and sky amidst the razor-sharp rocky peaks rising out of the emerald sea. He is just 15; this is his first mission. Under the protection of the God Pangui, he thrusts his hand into a hole in the rock. Carefully, he extracts a mass of white, moon-shaped fibres: a sea swallow’s nest, containing the caviar of Asia.
Composed of seaweed and the saliva secreted by the swallow to solidify its nest, the “white gold” of the swallow’s nest is used by the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. Some even believe that it is a veritable cure against AIDS. With these inherent properties, the swallow’s nests that supply the Tagbanua – one of the ethnic groups living in the archipelago of Palawan – are the best in the world.
In Hong Kong, a kilo of the product sells for up to $10,000 (compared with a mere fifth of that for regular nests). But this enormous sum represents nothing for the Tagbanua: “We don’t need the money. Just like we don’t need shoes. Our goal is to continue the tradition of our fathers and grandfathers.”
This is why the swallow’s nest “thieves” – all Tagbanua – keep the location of their island secret. Only a few Hong Kong merchants speak of its existence – and then ever so carefully. From February through April, during the harvest season, the Tagbanua explore the nests that are passed on from generation to generation. In May and July, they let the “salangani” (sea swallows) lay their eggs. Then, until November, they spend the rest of the season fishing. In December, they clean out the holes, removing the branches and grass in preparation for the making of new nests.
And every year, as it has been for centuries, the ritual continues. Every day, when the day is over, the men line up on the white sand of the beach. Using old coins as weights, they place their “catch” on improvised scales. The Chinese merchants arrive from the neighbouring island, bringing with them cases of beer and rum, sacks of rice and boxes of tobacco in exchange for the Tagbanua’s “white” treasure.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
All rights reserved