"We had the opportunity to meet 50-year-old Rusminah Baji, a grandmother of two who has put her life on the line to retrieve a bird's nest from the cave since she was 17. Despite her age, she is very agile at climbing the 'gulug'. (Rattan Scaffold) and holding on to the rope at a height of 60 meters from the ceiling of the cave, collecting the bird nests attached to the cave wall."
The Madai Cave is located between Lahad Datu and Tawau, near Kunak town. The cave is easy to find as it is only about a mile from the main road. The hill with the Madai Cave itself rises steeply from the jungle. At the entrance of the cave, you can also see the village: Madai. There is also a small mosque in Madai. They mainly stay here during the harvest period, when people come to the caves for their share of the bird nests.
A staircase leads to one of the entrances. First you walk through a dark tunnel where there is a grave of an unknown person. This passage leads to the entrance of the cave, where there are a few houses, which are used by the men who guard and collect the nests. There is another grave, probably of "Nenek Apui", who was one of the first inhabitants here. Then you enter the big cave.
The Madai Cave is the habitat of a large number of swifts. Their nests are harvested for a famous Chinese delicacy: the bird's nest soup.
Twice a year (between February and April and between July and September) recognized collectors risk their lives by climbing to the roof of these caves using only rattan ladders, ropes and bamboo sticks, dangerously tied together. For more than five centuries, the Ida'an people (men) have been harvesting these nests as they own the rights for the harvest in the Madai Caves. It is then a special festival event for the local Ida'an villagers.
The very first nests are harvested between February and April, when the birds have their first nest ready of the year. It seems cruel, but the swallows immediately make a second nest, which is then left untouched. Here they will lay the eggs and these are hatched. When the young swallows have left their parental nest, this nest is also harvested. That is between July and September. The bird's nests represent a value of 500 US dollars per kilo.
There are more than 25 caves in this area, but Madai Cave is the largest and most famous It is part of the limestone hills in the Baturong Madai Forest Reserve.
The Madai Cave is also one of the most important archaeological sites, where traces of human existence and habitation have been found from more than 15,000 years ago. These traces of humans were kept in layers and layers of bat droppings, which were found in abundance in the caves.
Baturong is located about 16 kilometers from Madai. This is another huge limestone massif of archaeological importance. Baturong was once part of Tingkayu Lake, which was washed away a few thousand years ago around 15,000 BC. The Baturong Caves were believed to be inhabited for over 5000 years, until they were abandoned around 10,000 BC. However, they were inhabited again along with the Madai Caves until the end of the Paleolithic.
While the Madai Caves are easily accessible, the same cannot be said for Baturong. Baturong can only be reached by an hour's drive and another hour of walking through the palm oil plantations.
Although the Ida'an are the main producers, the bird nests are sold to middlemen who in turn supply the nests to consumers in Hong Kong, Singapore and China. It's a pricey delicacy there.
Swiftlet farming has become big business in Malaysia over the past two decades.
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