Photos of Ida'an people collecting edible bird's nests in the Madai Cave (Gua Madai) in Borneo.
Edible Swiftlet's nests (made with the bird's saliva) are praised by Chinese people who use them to prepare bird's nest soup. The sale of those nests is the main source of revenue for the nearby village of Madai.
The bird's nests are harvested from the highest parts of the cave (up to 150 feet / 50m high), using rattan ladders (made from plants and flexible, like rope ladders), rigid bamboo ladders and industrial nylon ropes (not climbing rope, which is way too expensive!). The bird's nest collectors use no harness and no safety equipment other than a helmet. They now use LED headlights for light.
This cave system is also home of large bat colonies, so the ground in the cave is covered by a thick layer of bat dropping called "guano" (several feet deep!). There are a few wooden planks to help walk over the guano, and if you don't walk on the wood, you sometimes sink knee-deep in the soft bat guano! Yuck!
During the bird's nest harvesting season, the ground of the cave is literally covered with young birds that jumped off the nests but were not strong enough to fly away. There are so many baby birds on the ground that it's almost impossible not to step on them. Most of those small birds will die (or get eaten by animals). The baby birds often congregate in small groups, maybe to get warmer or to get some comfort during their agony. It is very sad to see, but that's nature and nature can be cruel.
The cave is very dark. I used a tripod and long exposure (30 sec to 1 min) for most of those photos.
I believe that this is one of the best series of published photos showing the bird's nest collectors at work in the Madai Cave.
Needless to say that the Madai Cave is not set-up for tourist visits, but adventurous travelers can visit them. They are much more interesting than other "tourist caves" like Gomantong Cave near Sukau. Access is free but local guides expect a small donation. Bring a flash-light and be prepared to get dirty.