Visit to the Edible Swiftlet (Hawabill) nest caves at North Andaman

North Andaman is home to rare edible swiftlet nest caves. There are around 7 Swiftlet nesting points known at Andamans. Few of the accessible ones are at PathiLevel in North Andaman and at Wrafters creek at Baratang. We decided to visit the Pathilevel location during the Christmas Holidays of 2017.

There is no public information available at Diglipur about how to reach the caves. After talks with few locals at Diglipur we decided to give it a try ourselves. Since little is known about how to reach the place, there was also confusion about whether a permit is required to visit the area and if there is anybody at the location to check any such permit.

 

As per directions from locals at Diglipur, we drove to the last point of RamNagar village and parked our vehicle at the end of road that is marked by a big rectangular tar patch made for facilitating the parking for State transport (STS) buses.

 

We spoke to few residents at RamNagar near the approach of the trek, but most of them discouraged us that going there without a guide in the jungle carries a risk of getting lost in the jungle as there are multiple tracks leading to different parts of the jungle. 2 or 3 locals offered to lead us for a fee ranging from INR 500 to 1000. We however decided not to pay anyone to lead us to the hawabill caves and instead collected all the information that they shared in pieces.

Few of the pointers we received are as given below:

      1. Start climbing till you see a huge greyish-black rock (Around 25 feet high).
      2. Maintain the direction towards right
      3. Cross a stream (Nallah) that appears thrice on the path.
      4. There are multiple tracks after crossing the Nallah, Maintain the direction towards right
      5. If after an hour of walking you don’t get anything, prepare to turn back !

Because of the recent rains, the path was slippery and chances of encountering leeches was quite high. We carried a pounch of common salt and Antiseptic (Dettol) to counter the leeches. The advise of applying mosquito repellent cream also turned out to be a good idea.

Our journey started from the RamNagar approach by climbing up the trail. After climbing around 100 metres we observed a signpost "CRWC Plantation 2015-16" and other trails moving towards the left. As advised we continued our path towards the right and found the nallah that was supposed to cut across thrice on our way. The trail seemed to have been disappeared after the stream and we still decided to walk around the shoreline of the nallah towards the right untill we found a trail at the other end and continued our journey. On the way we found atleast 3 patches of ripe hog plums (Spondias , Andaman mombin) along the trail and few Mangosteens. Both the hog plums and jungle Mangosteens are edible and sometimes sold in markets at Diglipur and Rangat.

Information displayed on the board at the camp

 

After about an hour walk we found the Protection Camp "In-Situ Swiftlet protection camp at Pathilevel" set up by the Department of Environment and Forest. The camp is manned by a forest official and around 5-6 temporary staff (DRM's) hired by Dept. of Forest who stay full time in the camp during the swiftlet nesting period.

Facts and Myth:

      1. The existence of these caves were always known to the locals and swiftlet nests were smuggled out since ages
      2. It was only in 1995 due to efforts of an avian ecologist, R Sankaran with SACON (Salim Ali Centre for Natural History and Ornithology) that the conservation steps were initiated.
      3. Some tour operators are trying to establish the name of the location as "Alfred Caves" for vested interest. There is nothing of any Alfred to do anything with these caves.
      4. It is not known what happens to mature edible nests that are harvested by the Forest officials from the caves !


Collocacia fuciphaga inexpectata or Hawabill in its nest
Collocacia fuciphaga inexpectata