What is civet coffee?
Civet coffee, often referred to as Kopi Luwak (in Indonesia) or Weasel Coffee (in Vietnam), is coffee that has been partially digested by civets- usually, but not always, the common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). It is said that the civet's specialised digestive enzymes alter the structural and chemical characteristics of the coffee. The partially digested coffee beans are then picked from the civet's faeces before being cleaned, dried and roasted.
Inspired by the (false) claims of only 127kg availability per year and it's unusual production method, civet coffee was brought to international fame in 2003 on the ‘Oprah Winfrey show’ and again in the 2007 film ‘the Bucket List’ starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Soon after, civet coffee became second only in value to oil with prices reaching as high as three hundred US dollars per cup. Still today, civet coffee is big business. Recent market analysis has predicted that the civet coffee industry will be worth $10.9billion USD by 2030.
Having began in Indonesia, civet coffee is now produced across Asia and the industry relies on the capture, caging and force feeding of civets. Civet coffee tourism is also prevalent as tourists seek out ways to learn about and try "the worlds most famous coffee".
Why is civet coffee bad?
Unfortunately, all is not what it seems when it comes to civet coffee. Despite what marketing claims say, civet coffee is neither the most rare, unique, or the most expensive in the world. It also brings about significant animal welfare and conservation issues.
The global civet coffee industry now relies on the capturing, caging and force feeding of civets to meet consumer demand. Caged trapping and snares often cause acute stress and injury, as do the conditions that the civets find themselves once they enter the civet coffee industry.
Once captured, civets are held in stacks of small cages made from wire or mesh flooring so that the civets faeces can drop through to a collection tray below. Standing on wire or mesh causes abrasions and injury, and the lack of enrichment, bedding, privacy, and nutrition causes stereotypic pacing and self mutilation behaviours- all indicators of the civets attempt to psychologically cope.
Civets are naturally solitary animals and their wild range can be more than 2000ha each. Confinement and close proximity to other civets can therefore induce chronic stress. Prolonged stress can cause immune dysfunction and so wounds take longer to heal. Most civets will never see a vet, and most are fed either exclusively or almost entirely on coffee cherries causing caffeine toxicity. Civets will often die prematurely from caffeine over-consumption, infected wounds, disease, and chronic stress. Some civets are released once they start defecated blood only to be re-captured if they recover.
Civet coffee tourism has added further welfare issues, as civets are also now captured for tourists to view as part of curated civet coffee production tours. Our research has shown that civets can also be drugged to allow for tourists to safely pose with them.
While concerns have been raised by NGOs and animal welfare experts concerning the animal welfare impacts of civet coffee, less focus has been attributed to the conservation concerns caused by the civet coffee industry.
Civet coffee is no longer restricted to Indonesia, it's place of origin. It now occurs across south and southeast Asia from India to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, and China. As such, civets are being captured at alarming rates throughout their entire species distribution. Although common palm civets are not currently listed as a conservation concern, it is recognised that their populations are declining. There is currently a lack of data available to adequately assess the impact of mass capture of civets for the civet coffee industry, and so it is unclear if the currently rates are sustainable.
It is not only common palm civets that get caught up in civet coffee production. Related species including binturong (Arctictis binturong) (which are listed as Vulnerable to Extinction) and Owston's civets(Chrotogale owstoni) (which are listed as Endangered) have each been documented within civet coffee farms. Civet coffee farms are also used as "ghost facilities", enterprises that are disguised as licensed civet coffee farms whilst illegally trafficking species into the black market.
The Civet Project's latest documentary initiative seeks to highlight the conservation impacts of the global civet coffee industry.
The civet coffee industry is one of the latest drivers of indiscriminate snaring in southeast Asia, where approximately 12.3 million snares threaten more than 700 species.
Made from wire, nylon or cable, snares are cheap and simple to make and deploy. Most importantly, snaring is a highly effective and brutal hunting technique. When an animal walks through one, the snare tightens around them. This can cause serious injury and even death, and there is no guarantee what species will be captured.
Some species of civets are very susceptible to snaring, such as the endangered Owston's civet who, unlike common palm civets, are terrestrial. In fact, due to climate change, habitat fragmentation, and epidemic levels of snaring, Owston's civet have retreated to higher elevations and have become restricted to very few locations.
At the same time that Owston's civet are facing extinction, civet coffee tourism has emerged surrounding the species last remaining stronghold. If snaring is to increase into these areas to supply civet coffee, then the outlook for Owston's civets is certainly bleak and they could be reclassified as Critically Endangered.
Civets are integral for ecosystem health, as their large ranging patterns and varied diets make them highly effective seed dispersers. Binturong in particular are one of few species who can germinate fig seeds, and with out fig trees entire ecosystems would collapse. The removal of civet species therefore puts entire ecosystems at risk.
Myth Busting Civet Coffee
Don't be fooled by the marketing claims of the civet coffee industry, they simply don't add up.
The civet coffee industry is built on no more than gimmick, yet it's success on the global market continues to go unchallenged. When civet coffee gained international fame in the early 2000's, claims were made that the product was the most unique, rare, and expensive coffee in the world.
Early research used scan electron microscopy to analyse the structural characteristics of coffee that had passed through a civet, compared to coffee which had not been pre-digested. The research claimed to find microscopic holes ("micro-pitting") in the coffee beans surface that was theorised to be caused by the civets digestive enzymes stripping the bean of its proteins. However, in a repeat study that used the same technology, the Civet Project found that coffee that had been pre-digested by humans shared the same micro-pitting as civet coffee. Civet coffee is therefore no more unique than coffee found in human faeces. In a further challenge to the civet coffee industry, we sold one cup of human coffee for more than the price of 1kg of civet coffee. Civet coffee is not the most expensive coffee in the world- human coffee is.
Despite the claims of some coffee suppliers that their civet coffee comes from wild collection methods, the likelihood of this claim being authentic is extremely doubtful in practice. There is no way to test if a civet was wild or caged when they ate the coffee beans, and certification schemes rely on visiting establishments who can simply conceal their caged practices. In fact, civet coffee is almost always fake, and undercover investigations have proved that regular coffee is commonly labelled as civet coffee before entering the international market. Once falsely labelled, it will be sold at wildly inflated prices to consumers who believe they are paying for the genuine article.
Overall, the global scale to which civet coffee is available for purchase should be indication enough that this product is not rare. The claim of civet coffee rarity is just a gimmick which secures an expensive price tag.
Our free resources are designed to introduce audiences to the impacts of the civet coffee industry. With a focus on consumer and traveller ethics, our infographics are suitable for printing and online sharing.