What are civets?
Civets are small carnivores. They belong to one of the most ancient families of Feliformia ("cat-like" animals): the Viverridae family. Whilst they are cat-like, civets are not cats. In fact, they have several anatomical differences to cats. Civets have longer muzzels, they have tufts of whiskers that run along the lower jaw, they have shorter legs, and they have five toes on their hind feet. Civets also have less developed carnassial teeth than cats as they are not obligate carnivores and so have not developed the same dentition to shred meat.
The Viverridae family consists of civets, oyans, binturong, linsang and genets- all of which are small bodied carnivores found in Asia and Africa. Whilst these species are the most primitive of the Feliformia alive today, they are amongst the most poorly researched family of Carnivores. This is because civets and their Viverrid cousins tend to be nocturnal, solitary, and highly elusive which makes them very difficult to study in the wild. Most species are also arboreal (tree dwelling) and so can be difficult to observe from the ground.
Most members of the Viverridae family have a wide ranging diet consisting of seasonal fruits, plant matter, small rodents, birds, and carrion. Some species, such as the Owston's civet (Chrotogale owstoni) who are terrestrial, feed mainly on earthworms as well as the occasional frog, lizard or small ground dwelling mammal.
There are an estimated 33 species in the Viverridae family, though this is debated. Advances in phylogenetic research has led some researchers to propose changes to Viverrid classification such as reclassifying some Viverrid species into subspecies.
The Civet Project is dedicated to all Viverrid species, though to date our research has focusses mostly on civets founds throughout southeast Asia- those who are at risk of the civet coffee industry, indiscriminate snaring, the pet tradem and wild meat.
Like their name suggests, Common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) are commonly found throughout their species range which covers large swathes of south and southeast Asia from India and Nepal, to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and across the Indonesian archipelago.
Although this species is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, their populations are declining as the species faces increasing threats.
Common palm civets are highly adaptable animals and have become well versed at living on the edges of farmland and urban areas. This has unfortunately resulted in them being seen as "pests" in many areas. Where they used to be hunted and killed, now they are traded as pets and for the civet coffee industry.
Civets are most well known for their role in the production of civet coffee- coffee which is partially digested by civets. Unfortunately, rising consumer demand since the early 2000's has resulted in mass caged production. Now, civets across Asia are caged in terrible conditions where they are force fed coffee. Civets are also caged and drugged in civet coffee tours so that tourists can pose with them.
Masked palm civets (Paguma larvata) are found throughout lowland and montane forests up to 2500m elevations across regions of southeast Asia. Like common palm civets, masked palm civets are very adaptable to anthropogenic activity because they can survive on a range of foods including fruits, vegetation and small prey animals. Masked palm civets are mostly nocturnal and they can be both terrestrial and arboreal.
Like common palm civets, masked palm civets are popular pets in Indonesia and can be found in urban environments in greater numbers than before the civet pet trade became part of a popular wild pet subculture of urban and suburban young adults. Masked palm civets are often called "jumbo civets" by civet pet keeping enthusiasts on account for their larger size compared to their common palm civet cousins.
Masked palm civets are most well known for their role in the 2004 SARS epidemic which was traced to masked palm civets that had been butchered and cooked in a restaurant in China. Civet meat in china is considered a delicacy and is often sold as part of the luxury tiger (civet), phoenix (chicken), serpent (snake) soup. Still today, masked palm civet images feature in news articles about zoonotic disease. Like the bat, civets have become an icon of zoonotic disease.
Binturong (Arctictis binturong) are the largest member of the Viverridae family and can measure up to 5.25ft (160cm) from their nose to the tip of their tail. In fact, their tail is one of their most impressive features! Binturong are the largest mammal in the world with a prehensile tail- which means they can use their tail as a fifth limb. The only other non-primate with a prehensile tail is the kinkajou- which looks similar to a civet but is not related to civets. Kinkajou are also found on the other side of the world to civets, in south America.
Binturong are listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the IUCN which means their trade is strictly regulated. Unlike common palm civets and masked palm civets, it is illegal to capture and sell binturong into the civet coffee or wild meat industries and permits are required to keep binturong in captivity.
Binturong are most well known for their role as zoo ambassadors. Of all the civet species in the world. binturong are the most commonly represented Viverrid species in zoos globally. If you visit a binturong at a zoo, you'll notice that they smell like popcorn- a unique scent produced by their perennial glands which they use for scent marking their territory.
Owston's civets (Chrotogale owstoni) are the only member of the Chrotogale genus within the Viverridae family. They are terrestrial and earthworms make up the bulk of their diet.
Unfortunately, their terrestrial nature combined with their habitat preference for the forests and wooded lowland river basins of northern Vietnam, Laos and southern China, have rendered Owston's civets highly vulnerable to human activities. Owston's civets are extremely susceptible to indiscriminate snaring which is pervasive throughout their range. Once caught, Owston's civets are illegally traded into the civet coffee, exotic pet, and wild meat industries.
Owston's civet are listed as Endangered by the IUCN and recent research described the species as facing "impending extinction." Climate change and habitat fragmentation are also forcing Owston's civets to higher elevations. The Annamite Mountain Range is now considered the species last remaining stronghold.
The Civet Project seeks to highlight Owston's civet's plight as part of a documentary that will focus on the civet coffee industry in Vietnam.