Tens of thousands of birds cultivated for their edible nests are being banned from the capital of a Malaysian tourist island after the U.N. cultural agency warned that the business endangered efforts to preserve decades-old buildings prized for their historical value, officials said Thursday.
The bird breeders on Malaysia's northern Penang island voiced fears that the ban would disrupt their lucrative business, which existed for years before UNESCO placed Penang's capital of Georgetown on its list of World Heritage Sites in 2008.
A spot on the list helps attract tourists and U.N. grants, but authorities have to follow restrictions to limit changes to the landscape. The restrictions pose a problem for entrepreneurs in Georgetown who convert old buildings and houses into small farms where sparrow-like swiftlets live and breed.
Cup-shaped nests made from the swiftlets' glutinous saliva are sold across Asia as a delicacy and can fetch up to $1,000 per pound ($2,000 per kilogram). Many Chinese serve the nests in a soup, saying it has medicinal qualities.
Chow Kon Yeow, a Penang state legislator, said authorities have ordered all swiftlet farms in Georgetown to move to agricultural areas elsewhere on the island by 2013. Twenty-seven have closed so far, while another 101 remain.
"It's too heavy a burden if we lose" the U.N. heritage status, he said.
UNESCO has expressed concerns to Malaysian authorities over the impact of the swiftlet farms, said Kishore Rao, deputy director of the Paris-based UNESCO World Heritage Center.
Conservation activists claim that buildings converted into swiftlet farms suffer irreparable harm because windows and doors are altered, and sprinkler systems set up at some homes to keep them moist for the birds cause water damage.
However, Carole Loh, president of the Association of Swiftlet Nest Industry in Penang, said the ban was unfair because some swiftlet farms have been in Georgetown for more than 20 years. The larger farms have thousands of birds.
"They are part of our living heritage," said Loh, whose association represents about 100 breeders. "These houses are (the birds') homes. We cannot just move."
UNESCO added Georgetown and Malaysia's southern city of Melaka to its list in 2008, saying both "constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia." Penang was a major 19th-century port during British colonial rule and is known for quaint mansions and architecture.
In recent years, officials in Georgetown have halted the construction of several high-rise hotels because of UNESCO restrictions on the height of new buildings within the city's core.