I wake up to scuffling sounds from the balcony. Burglars, I think immediately. My heart lurches as I reach for the phone — which is not there. In the moonlight, I can see it through my bedroom door on the coffee table in the living room. Grabbing a stout walking stick, I creep towards the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Coffee, civets and conservation


I wake up to scuffling sounds from the balcony. Burglars, I think immediately. My heart lurches as I reach for the phone — which is not there. In the moonlight, I can see it through my bedroom door on the coffee table in the living room. Grabbing a stout walking stick, I creep towards the phone, my heart pounding with every step. The curtain moves in the wind, at the same time that the automatic floodlight on the balcony finally switches itself on. From 15 feet away, I find myself staring at a masked face . . .

I heave a sigh of relief and collapse on to the sofa. A pair of palm civets cavorting on the balcony, that’s what it was.

Almost everyone has heard an Asian palm civet (Scientific name: Paradoxurus hermaphroditus; Sinhala: Uguduwa/Kalawedda; Tamil: Mara nai), but few have seen them. Commonly known as polecats or civet cats, they are neither polecats nor cats. These medium-sized mammals belong to the Family Viverridae and are carnivores, more closely related to cats, mongooses and hyenas than to dogs and bears.

Civets are mainly nocturnal. They have long and lithe bodies, long furry tails and pointed snouts, and weigh about two to three kilogrammes. At a first glance, these snouts make them look somewhat like cats, hence the common name civet cat. Asian palm civets have markings on their faces that make them look as if they are wearing masks like robbers. Their fur appears to be black but actually, is more grey than black.

Asian palm civets are great climbers — they are arboreal. Often, they are found sleeping in the crooks of branches or in Fish tail palm trees (Sinhala: Kitul; Tamil: Tippillipanai) from which toddy is obtained. Hence, Asian palm civets are sometimes called Toddy cats, again, the second name a misnomer.

Unlike many other wild mammals, Asian palm civets are quite comfortable living in proximity to humans. They are very common in the ceilings of old urban houses. I think I have an entire family of Asian palm civets in my ceiling, and they make such a racket, hissing and thumping around that I often wonder whether they are having a midnight party up there. Apart from the noise, they have the unfortunate habit of sometimes urinating through the ceiling.

Civets are essentially old world, tropical species, found in Africa and Asia, usually omnivorous, feeding on small animals such as rats and mice as well as insects and fruit.

Among the other civets in Sri Lanka, are the Small Indian civet (formerly called the Ring-tailed civet) (Scientific name: Viverricula indica; Sinhala: Urulawa; Tamil: Punhu-poonai), a more terrestrial species, which can sometimes be seen at night, fleetingly, by the sides of roads bordered by forests.

Also found in Sri Lanka are several other palm civets, all endemic to Sri Lanka. The arboreal Sri Lanka golden wet zone palm civet (Scientific name: Paradoxurus aureus; Sinhala: Pani kalawedda; Tamil: Ponn mara nai), is a golden reddish-brown in colour, and is found in the forests on the wet and intermediate zones. The Sri Lanka brown palm civet (Scientific name: Paradoxurus montanus; Sinhala: Sapumal kalawedda; Tamil: Ilangai kapila mara-nai), is, as its name suggests, browner in colour with one third of its tail whitish, and is found in the mainly in the forests of the intermediate zone, as well as in the forests of the mid and hill country). The Sri Lanka golden stripe-backed palm civet (Scientific name: Paradoxurus stenocephalus; Sinhala: Sri Lanka Ran kalawedda; Tamil: Ilangai ponn godu mara-nai), has, again as its name suggests, dark brown stripes from the back of the neck. This is found in the forests of the dry zone.

Little is known about these three other palm civets. Up until about five years ago, all three species were subsumed under one name, as one species. Even today, some scientists dispute this split.

Little is known in general about civets in Sri Lanka: what they feed on, their ecology, how they fit in an ecosystem. However, as medium-sized omnivores, they are likely to be important as predators of small mammals — such as shrews, mice and rats — and are also possibly important seed dispersers, as they also feed on fruit, such as those of the fish tail palm, jak and Ceylon oak. The noisy and annoying Asian palm civet is a natural pest controller in our urban and rural settings.

What is known is that the three endemic palm civets, confined to forests in various parts of the country, are threatened by habitat loss.
In other parts of the world, civets are affected by overexploitation. In the 18th century, the Dutch, colonising Indonesia, began establishing coffee plantations. Indonesians were prohibited from using the coffee beans for themselves. Indonesians found that the Asian palm civet ate coffee beans, but passed them undigested in droppings. Indonesians began collecting these droppings, washing and roasting these beans for their own use. This coffee, extracted from civet poop, soon became a delicacy, and was dubbed Kopi luwak, as kopi, like in Sinhalese and Tamil, was the Indonesian generic word for coffee, and luwak was the Sumatran word for the Asian palm civet.

Studies have shown that enzymes from the civet’s digestive system seep into the beans and digest the proteins in them, making the beans taste less bitter.

Kopi luwak is marketed mainly from Indonesia, Viet Nam and the Philippines. Kopi luwak from Viet Nam sells at a staggering price of 3,000 US dollars per kilogramme!

Originally, the Kopi luwak production process began with a mere collection of beans from the faeces of wild civets. Soon the demand for this luxury coffee made the supply inadequate, and this low-intensity, subsistence method, as usual, gave way to the intensive capture of wild civets, inhumane caging and force-feeding of coffee beans. Animal welfare associations protest against these appalling conditions of farming. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, warns that ‘the impact of the demand for this fashionable coffee on wild civet populations is yet unknown but may constitute a significant threat.’

The other threat to civets also stems from their posterior ends: secretions produced from perenial glands located near their anuses contain a foul-smelling substance known as civetene, which they use to mark their territories. Humans find the diluted secretion ‘pleasant, with an animalistic musk nuance’ and so, use it in the perfume industry. Ethiopia has the monopoly for global civet musk export and corners 90% of the market, exporting 2,000 kilogrammes of civet musk annually and earning (for exporters) 400 US dollars per kilogramme. The African civet (Civettictis civetta), found in all of sub-Saharan Africa, is the prime target for extraction. They are captured and their perineal glands scraped for secretions every ten to 12 days. As with Asian palm civets, farming and extraction practices are cruel and inhumane. IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature notes that although synthetic musk has been available for six decades, perfumiers prefer natural civetene.

As a rule, we humans spend a lot of energy and effort conserving large, visible, charismatic species such as elephants, leopards and whales. Their appeal to us is immediate. We learn about them, we seek them in national parks and we are vociferous in our support for their conservation. However, we rarely give a thought to the unseen and the unknown — such as the civets discussed above.

As Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC says “Do people drinking this coffee know what a civet is? Do they know that animals are being taken from the wild for their cup of coffee? And do they know that the beans ground to make their coffee have been eaten and pooped out by a smelly, furry little animal?”

We need to know more about the wild denizens in our country. We need to know each time we use or buy anything made from natural products, whether our actions damage wild populations. Do we know what is in the perfumes we use? Do we know the source of other products we use? As the World Wildlife Fund says .

Always ask yourself:
What is this made of?
Where did it come from?
Is it legal to buy this?

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