KUNAK, Oct 23 -- The job of harvesting bird’s nest attached high on the walls and ceilings of caves is usually attributed to men as the work requires more energy and courage.
But Gua Madai in Kunak, Sabah is not short of female bird’s nest collectors.
A Bernama reporter had the opportunity to meet 50-year-old Rusminah Baji, a grandmother of two who has been risking her life to gather bird’s nest from the cave since she was 17.
To the reporter’s amazement, despite her age, she was very agile climbing the ‘gegulug’ (rattan scaffold) and holding on the rope at a height of 200 feet of the ceiling of the cave, while collecting the bird's nests attached to the wall of the cave.
According to the mother-of-six, she started as a helper for her father when she was 17 and as time goes by, she inherits the job from him.
She is from the Idahan ethnic minority group in Sabah who has a claim on the harvesting rights of the nest for generations.
“At first my father did not allow me to climb the rattan scaffold to gather the bird's nests because it was too dangerous. Nowadays, we also hang on the ropes, but previously we depend on the rattan only...which was more dangerous. This job is very risky. Moreover, the route to the cave is very slippery.
“Then my father started to encourage me after he saw how passionate I was about the work. I believe that if we work in the proper way, not casually and put safety first, we could avoid mishaps,” she said.
According to Rusminah, the work is very dangerous and therefore bird’s nest collectors are offered high pay.
“The bird's nest collectors could earn between RM3,000 to RM5,000 in a day depending on their skill because in this cave (Gua Madai) alone there are over 100 hole lots with different heights and challenges,” she said.
She explained that they climb the bamboo scaffold tied to the cave wall, and use the rope attached on the cave’s ceiling to hang while collecting the nest.
“The scaffold was only installed during the harvesting season in April, August and December. After the season ends, it will be detached and stored to prevent intruders from using it to steal the bird's nest,” she explained.
She said the collectors were not allowed to use knives or sharp objects when harvesting the nest.
“In April, the nest are usually firm and not easy to retrieve, which is why we sprayed the wall with water and waited about five minutes to pluck it. We need to be careful because if the nest was damaged the quality will be reduced,” she added.
Almost every year, there were fatal accidents involving nest collectors who slip and fall from the cave walls, she said.
“It is very sad to see our friends fall and crash on the cave floor, the consequences are really bad. But this is our fate, no matter how cautious we are we still could slip or took the wrong step,” she said.
Rusminah said despite witnessing her friends die from falling while working, it did not stop her or the Idahan community to continue the tradition.
“We put our trust and surrender to God because the job is our source of income, and not to mention we are already used to the life inside the cave, so we keep working,” she said.
Gua Madai is part of the limestone hills range located within the Baturong Madai Forest Reserve, about 13 kilometres from Kunak Town. The cave is a heritage cave that produces black swiftlet nests.
For the record, according to Section 85 (2) of the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, Gua Madai is listed in Part I of Schedule 4, as one of the caves recognised by the Sabah government as the inheritance right of a community.
Meanwhile, the Idahan is the tribe who inherited the rights to harvest the nest in the holes of the rocks in Gua Madai subjected to royalty payments of 10 percent to the government.
Rusminah said that every year, an estimated one tonne of black swiftlet’s nest were harvested from the cave, and the price of the unprocessed nest could reach RM3,000 per kilogram.
“The Gua Madai bird's nest has a higher quality than elsewhere. It is dubbed as the black gem because after it was processed, the price could shoot up to RM12,000 per kilogramme,” she explained.
The harvesting season typically lasts about 30 days.