GOMANTONG CAVES are an intricate cave system inside Gomantong Hill that is the largest limestone outcrop in the Lower Kinabatangan area within the Sandakan division, in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo.
Situated in a Sabah Parks forest reserve, the caves and the surrounding area are a protected area for wildlife, especially orangutans.
The main cave system is divided into two parts: the more accessible Simud Hitam (Black Cave), and the larger Simud Putih (White Cave) which lies above. The names refer to the main type of nests produced by swiftlets in each cave.
The cave system is home to many other animals, including cockroaches and bats. Crested serpent eagles, kingfishers, and Asian fairy bluebirds are also found outside the caves.
Access to these caves is in the form of a wooden walkway circuiting the interior.
Investigation of the guano deposits was first made in 1889 by J.H. Allard of the China Borneo Company, and the caves were first mapped by P. Orolfo in 1930.
For centuries, the caves have been renowned for their valuable edible swiftlet nests (left), which are harvested for bird’s nest soup. The most valuable of the nests, the white ones, can sell for very high prices.
The birds’ nest collection is an ancient tradition, and the trading of these nests has been done since at least 500 AD.
Twice a year, from February to April and July to September, locals with licenses climb to the roof of the caves, using only rattan ladders, ropes, and bamboo poles, and collect the nests.
After the young have fledged, the second collection is made. Care must be taken to assure that the nests are collected only after the young swiftlets have abandoned these nests.
Edible birds’ nests are protected under the Birds’ Nest Ordinance and the Forest Enactment of 1968. Heavy fines and penalties are imposed on unlicensed collectors.
Every evening, over two million resident bats spiral out for their evening feed. As the bats leave, the swiftlets are usually beginning to make their way back to the caves after a day’s foraging.
Early this year, a call was made for the Sabah state government to consider reviewing the tender system of harvesting bird nests in Gomantong Caves for the benefit of the local residents and contractors.
State Assemblyman for Sukau Datuk Saddi Abdul Rahman said there is a need to re-look at a regulation under Enactment No. 6 1997 of Wildlife Schedule 4 (Section 85) Division.
He said the regulation stated that any contractor given mandate once every three years to harvest the Gomantong bird nests must be capable to meet the tender rules.
Saddi, who is also deputy president of the Sabah Orang Sungai Association, said he believed it would be appropriate that the present tender system be limited to entrepreneurs and residents in the Sukau.
“The bird nests harvesting contract in Gomantong Cave has been given to outsiders since 2000 and has been bringing various problems and unhealthy activities.
“These include hiring of illegal foreigners for a long period to harvest bird nests in the cave, thus, denying job opportunities for the locals, especially youth.
“Another problem is that these harvesters have damaged the cave’s ecosystem because of their greed and refusal to follow the existing regulations on the harvesting of bird nests,” he said.
He added that the State Government’s decision to set a tender system for harvesting the bird nests in Gomantong Caves since 2000 was due to disagreement among the inheritors.
He said such situation had rendered the State Government unable to procure tax revenue on the bird nests harvesting activity from the concerned quarter that was given the mandate to administer the Gomantong Caves.
However, according to one report, the WWF-Malaysia has described the Gomantong Caves as “the best managed edible birds’ nest cave in the world”.