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From Rare to Reckless: Inside Southeast Asia's Civet Coffee Tourism Industry

Our founder, Jes Hooper, reflects on her experience investigating civet coffee tours in Vietnam ahead of our documentary release on 30th June.

A common palm civet looks into the lens of the camera from a shelf inside a civet coffee cage
Common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) photographed in a civet coffee tourist attraction in Vietnam (photo credit: Jack Wootton, The Civet Project Foundation)

It’s a blustery but beautiful afternoon and I’m looking out over the picturesque mountains of Dalat, Vietnam’s “city of flowers”, a prime tourist destination for those looking to experience Vietnam’s natural beauty. Yet I’m not here for the views. I’m here to trace the story of civet coffee, and its rising industrialisation throughout southeast Asia.

To my right are my friends and colleagues, one (who has asked to remain anonymous) is our local guide, and the other is independent filmmaker, Jack Wootton. Together, we are filming an investigative documentary into the truth behind the world famous civet coffee.

Civet coffee, popularly known as “kopi luwak” (in Indonesia), and “weasel coffee” or "cà phê chồn” (in Vietnam), is coffee that has been produced through the digestive tract of the palm civet, a small nocturnal and solitary carnivore endemic to southeast Asia. Fuelled by tourists’ desire to try this exclusive beverage (and to share their experience on social media), civet coffee has become a common tourist attraction throughout southeast Asia. I've been studying civet coffee production and tourism for the past five years as part of my PhD research, and I've seen the spread of this industry from it's apparent origin in Indonesia out across southeast Asia. In effect, civet coffee has engulfed almost the entirety of the civet's range.

Large trays of civet coffee drying in the sun
Large trays of civet coffee drying in the sun at a tourist attraction (Photo credit: Jack Wootton, The Civet Project Foundation).

Civet coffee tourism across southeast Asia is ubiquitous, every site is similar.

Almost all civet coffee site includes coffee plants, civets, and civet faeces. Here in Dalat, the set up is no different: First, tourists are guided through rows of coffee plants to see the coffee cherries in their original form, then they are taken to see civets in cages where they can see the mouth to anus production process. Here, tourists are free to see, touch and sometimes even hold the civets, most of whom are either trying to sleep in the heat of the sun, or pacing frantically upon the grated metal slats of their cage floor. In all facilities, civets are housed alongside one another in the daylight, despite each animal belonging to a nocturnal and solitary species. In all facilities we have visited, coffee was either the primary or only form of food. Malnourishment and caffeine toxicity were evident. For the civets curled up in small balls, closer inspection revealed missing limbs or open wounds, indicators of wild-capture.

Often falling foul of signage claiming that the civets are well cared for, that they are frequently released or have even been rescued, tourists are then directed towards trays of civet scat to see what the beans look like when they come out the “other side”. Tourists can then see how the beans are hand picked, cleaned, sun dried before roasting. All this leads the tourists to a tasting platform where civet coffee is brewed and presented in a ceremonial fashion. Complete with stunning scenic views of the luscious rolling foothills of the mountains, the experience is photo-ready for the perfect civet coffee selfie. In the mountainous photo backdrops, however, there is a hidden and alarming civet coffee reality.

In the mountains of Dalat, there is a special and highly elusive civet species- the endangered Owston's civet. Not only are these mountains the last remaining stronghold of this highly threatened species, but their shrinking habitat is now surrounded by the civet coffee tourism industry. The Annamite forest is the home to a total of eight civet species- each of whom are routinely captured to supply civet coffee. The welfare implications of civet coffee start in these mountains, where millions of snares are set each year in the bid to catch local wildlife.

Snares are indiscriminate and inherently cruel.

Composed of a wire loop that unassuming animals walk through, the wire tightens around the victims limb or neck leaving horrific injuries. As the wire bites into the skin, so too do the animals bite into their trapped bodies in a bid to free themselves.

One small civet will always be in my memory. She shook with fear, eyes wide, perched on a small wooden log trying to hide her missing front foot, the only remains of which was a raw bloody stump. Whilst this civet was clearly a new recruit to the coffee tour, she represented many others that would die before being retrieved from the traps. Many snared animals die from dehydration and starvation because not all snares are returned to by the trappers, others are transported across vast distances to wherever they will fetch the most money. For civets, if the trapping and transportation doesn’t kill them, they commonly find themselves enrolled as civet coffee producers where they face brutal conditions, often dying from caffeine toxicity, malnutrition, and stress. This animal welfare crisis is no small scale problem.

Cage bars reflected in the eye of a common palm civet held in a tourist facility, Vietnam.
Cage bars reflected in the eye of a common palm civet held in a tourist facility, Vietnam. (Photo credit: Jack Wootton, The Civet Project Foundation.)

A dense matt of vines and other forest plants inside a Vietnamese forest.
Over 10,000 snares were removed from one national part in Vietnam, with civet coffee tourism contributing as a snaring driver. (Photo credit: Jes Hooper, The Civet Project Foundation).

In the foothills of these mountains there is a network of civet coffee farms that are hidden from tourist view. Here, the conditions are even worse for the civets. The cages are smaller than in the tourist facilities, the number of civets are greater, and their primary purpose is to produce as much civet coffee as possible regardless of their suffering.

Posing as potential civet coffee exporters, we spoke with several farm owners who told us that across Dalat the civet farm network could produce upwards of 100 tonnes of civet coffee per year, quantities that are a far cry from the industry’s official claims of only 127kg global availability per year.

Whilst the civet coffee is an animal welfare epidemic, the industry also has very real potential to start the next pandemic.

Alarmingly, of all the tours we have visited, not one included basic biosecurity, and signs of disease were obvious. In fact, as I sit looking out over these beautiful mountain views, there is civet urine drying on my shoes. The musky smell emanating from the civet coffee brewing around us is an intense reminder of the smell of civet waste. We’d almost become accustomed to seeing civets sitting in their own faeces, with untreated festering wounds and nothing to eat but coffee and, often, not even water to drink.

If we were not aware of the disease risks these conditions presented, then we would be joining the thousands of tourists walking through civet waste, touching dirty cages and interacting with diseased animals, drinking coffee that comes from their faeces, and then taking these contaminants with us. Collectively, we three have applied a staggering quantity of disinfectant to our clothes and hands during our investigation, and there are certainly clothes we won’t be taking home with us.

Urine leaks across the floor in a civet coffee tour, Vietnam.
Urine leaks across the floor in a civet coffee tour, Vietnam (Photo credit: Jack Wootton, The Civet Project Foundation)

Is this what tourists want? My research so far has shown that tourists are often not aware of the poor welfare experienced by the civets they see. Compelled by the “once in a lifetime” opportunity to try one of the world’s most famous drinks, tourists often overlook the plight of animals as they are focussed on the final product instead. Yet the conditions of these animals are only so because of the demand for civet coffee. Simply put- the industry cannot keep up with the demands of tourists and consumers.

It doesn’t need to be like this. Civet coffee was not always an industrial product that involved the caging of civets or the defaunation of the forests. We are, however, too late to see the errors of our ways and to revert to the wild collection of civet coffee. Civet coffee authentication methods are notoriously flawed- wild civet coffee is almost always fake. It’s either caged civet coffee labelled as wild, or its coffee that has never seen a civet to begin with.

And despite civet coffee often being promoted as a cultural beverage, this is also not the case. Civet coffee is not an authentic beverage of Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, India, China or any of the other places that it’s now produced and sold in southeast Asia. Civet coffee is only there because it’s a lucrative business despite the dramatic costs to animal welfare, conservation and human health.

Whilst our cameras and phones are not filled with the typical images you’d expect from tourists, our rucksacks are filled with local teas and handmade trinkets. There are other ways to support local economies and local cultures that don’t rely on the exploitation of wildlife. For now, we try to remain rooted in the comfort that there is hope for civets, that we can spread the message of their plight.

We wait a little while longer admiring the view and hoping that somewhere out there in the distance there are civets living wild and free and that they’ll not become victims to the civet coffee industry. Finally, walking past a lone civet shaking in a cage at the entrance to the tour, we bid farewell to the horrors we’ve seen, more determined than ever to raise awareness of the true cost of civet coffee.

Author Bio:

Dr Jes Hooper is an anthropologist whose research focus is human-civet relationships. Jes founded the Civet Project Foundation in 2019 as an extension of her PhD research into the civet coffee industry and has written extensively on the topic of civets and civet coffee tourism.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on the blog of our partner, Wild Welfare.

More Information

  • Civet Coffee: from Rare to Reckless will be free to watch on our YouTube channel from 30th June.

  • You can help us help civets by making a donation.

  • You can keep up to date with the latest civet news by subscribing to our mailing list.

  • You can learn more about our film and calls to action here.

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