“What are civets?” This is the question that so frequently follows the answer to the first question: “what is your PhD research about?” I almost always give the same answer, that civets are the animals who are famous for creating civet-coffee, the coffee that comes from civet poop. And, as if on cue, I’m then met with generous nods and comments concerning the novelty of civet coffee and its acclaim as the most expensive, rare, and unique coffee in the world. Yet civets are so much more than civet coffee, and civet coffee is so much less unique or rare than you might think.
Civets belong to the family “Viverridae”, an ancient line of Feliformia or “cat-like” animals, found in Africa and Asia. Whilst they look like cats, however, Viverrids have specialist adaptations that set them apart. Most Viverrids have longer muzzles, they have tufts of whiskers that run along the lower jaw, they have shorter legs, and five toes on their hind feet. Viverrids 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. In fact, it is their varied diets that led to the discovery of civet coffee.
I find it interesting how most people can recognise civets, but only in reference to the coffee they are so famously associated with.
Why is this? Well, civets and their Viverrid relatives (genets, oyans, linsang, and binturong) are highly elusive. They are nocturnal, secretive, and solitary. Many Viverrid species are also arboreal and so spend most of their time concealed from view high up in the forest canopy. In short, it’s difficult to spot civets in the wild, and even more difficult to study them. Many species of civets are considered to be common. As such, few zoos house them and they receive little in-situ focus. Scientific knowledge is, therefore, somewhat lacking for civets compared to other carnivores. In effect, the most common way people will see civets is in the adverts of civet coffee.
Civet Coffee Beans
Civet coffee is coffee that has passed through the digestive tract of civets. Their specialised digestive enzymes are said to strip the coffee cherry of protein, creating a smoother (albeit less caffeinated!) coffee. A laboratory study of civet coffee in 2004 found that civet coffee was structurally unique to non-digested varieties. It had tiny, microscopic holes (“micro-pitting”) that scientists theorised was from the process of enzymatic protein extraction. However, this research has since been contested based on dubious methods and unreliable sourcing of the coffee. The coffee that was tested in 2004 may have never even seen a civet! Even more shocking, the same methods applied to coffee that had been digested by humans found the same characteristic micro-pitting as found in civet coffee- based on these findings, even humans can create poop coffee with the same properties as civet coffee. Maybe civet coffee isn’t unique after all!
Civet coffee certainly isn’t rare. It is now produced on an industrial scale across southeast Asia. Civets are captured from the wild, caged, and force-fed coffee in a bid to meet rising consumer demand. Whilst the animal welfare implications of civet coffee are well documented, the scale of the industry is now also having dire consequences for wild populations. Harvesting quotas go ignored, legal civet coffee farms are used as cover for smuggling endangered civet species, and capture methods often include indiscriminate snaring that impacts wide varieties of animal taxa.
With the civet coffee industry expected to reach a market worth of $10billion US dollars by 2030, the industry shows no signs of slowing and so immeasurable numbers of animals and their habitats will continue to be impacted. Public education is therefore key. By sharing the message of civet protection, we can begin to disrupt the consumer demand for caged civet coffee.
The Role of Zoos
Zoos offer an ideal platform for civet-focussed education initiatives. BIAZA zoos alone, hold 72 Viverrid individuals, each one offering the opportunity for enhanced educational messaging about civet coffee, ethical consumerism, and civet conservation.
Zoos have already been instrumental in the promotion of ethical, pro-conservation, consumerism. For example, zoos have an excellent track record for promoting sustainable palm oil and smartphone/coltan recycling, both of which engage zoo visitors and inform them of the tangible ways that their own consumer behaviour can make a real-world difference for animals.
Whilst many civet species are currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, we know that the vast majority of these are experiencing declining populations, and civet coffee is certainly contributing. If we begin to raise awareness of their threats now, then we will be best positioned to protect civet species from needing to be reclassified as Vulnerable to extinction.
If more zoos were to act now and integrate civet coffee education into their zoo-based education strategies, then we might just prompt the end of caged civet coffee farming.
By doing so, we might help people better recognise civets as the illusive, mysterious, and interesting species they are. We might help move the conversation from coffee, towards the ancient family of small carnivores that are so much more than the coffee picked from their poop.
About the Author:
Jes Hooper is a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Exeter, a member of the IUCN SSC Small Carnivore Specialist Group, and the Founder of The Civet Project Foundation, a research initiative focussed on Viverrid species. Jes previously worked as a zookeeper and zoo registrar where she discovered her passion for civet welfare and conservation.
This blog was originally featured as part of BIAZA's Creatures Unseen campaign