Did you know that in some parts of the world, forests now sit empty? Empty forest syndrome is a term given to describe forests that are empty of animal life. Why? Because where empty forests used to host vibrant communities of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, too many have been removed by humans to keep their populations sustainable. All have been sold for human use, as exotic pets, wild meat, medicine, or as tourist display animals.
Forests around the world are also becoming increasingly fragmented as more roads are built through them, and huge swathes of land are demolished for human housing and for mono-crop plantations such as soy and palm oil. Without animals to help maintain them, empty forests are less resilient to human activity. Without animals, pollination and seed dispersal are restricted.
Empty forests in Asia are in need of animal reintroductions, particularly species that act as seed dispersers - animals who can help forests rejuvenate by spreading seeds and helping them grow. One family of animals who are ready for the task are a rather unassuming and little-known group of small carnivores: palm civets.
Who are palm civets?
Palm civets, from the family of Viverridae, are our most ancient felines, or Feliformia (cat-like animals), branching off from others in the suborder, such as cats and hyenas. This ancient family is rarely in the public eye when we think of critical species of the south-east Asian forests. Yet, they could potentially restore and connect highly degraded habitats. Today, this article will shed light on these little creatures and illuminate their fantastic potential as ecosystem engineers.
Typically, civets are termed “elusive” due to their nocturnal nature and their preferred playground: the trees. Though often coming to the ground to feed on animals and insects, these primarily arboreal animals suit their forest home across southeast Asia.
Their elusive nature is also evident in our lack of knowledge of crucial behavioural processes, such as their reproduction. Most of what we know about palm civet behaviour has been observed in captive settings, making observations of civet wild behaviour all the more valuable.
Palm civets tend to make “day beds” in plantation areas and forest edges. Day beds are formed from a mesh of dense vines, making them almost invisible. Common palm civets tend to only break their solitary lifestyle for mating; breeding, nesting and weaning, all of which occur in tree-top homes, far away from prying eyes.
Young are weaned and independent by only three months old. Once independent, these individuals may find themselves on an intimidating journey to establish their territory and, most importantly, to find food in a human-dominated landscape.
The power of poop!
Seed dispersers are animals that transport seeds from the parent plant to a new location through various means. Some species may do this by holding the seeds in their mouths (such as squirrels), their hands (such as macaques), their gut, and then faeces like civets. But the process may be more complicated when digesting these seeds correctly; civets, for example, have specialist digestive enzymes in their gut which break down the surrounding fruit but preserve the seed inside. This seed will then pass out of the individual's digestive system into their poop, often providing the perfect conditions for growth.
Seeds can also be carried great distances by animals. Forest elephants, for example, can have a home range of 562–800 km2 in Southern India.
Civet seed dispersal has often been compared to macaques due to the similarity of their varied diet. However, In the case of civets, there has been evidence to suggest they not only preserve larger seeds but also carry them further, and germination has a higher success rate. Civets in a 2010 study were shown to defecate in areas such as river banks, walking trails and forest clearings, giving the best chance for a young plant to survive.
The Small but Mighty Gardener
The details of civet behaviour in the wild are still somewhat of a mystery. However, one overwhelming truth is their outstanding adaptability. Despite being termed elusive, these animals are being sighted by people at an increasing rate. This increase is likely due to the destruction of their forest home, with a devastating 610,000 square kilometres destroyed in southeast Asia from 2001-2019.
Being such an ancient family, the unprecedented habitat change around them reveals how thousands of years of evolution has gifted them with adaptability. Civets can now be found in degraded and secondary forests, where other prominent ecosystem engineers and seed dispersers, such as the Asian forest elephant, often cannot be sustained.
The elephant's core habitat has shrunk 39.6% in India alone from 1930-2013 . This gives civets an essential role in these degraded systems to disperse seeds and plant the next generation of trees. Due to their far-ranging behaviour, such as up to 201 ha in Borneo, and diverse diet, they can bring a range of plant species from primary forests that may have been lost back into these degraded areas. Their seed dispersal can also help form physical and functional connectivity between isolated forest fragments, allowing animals to avoid human areas when dispersing.
The forest elephant is an exceptional and well-established ecosystem engineer, but civets also play this role, particularly in ever-changing human-dominated landscapes. This ancient and mysterious felid who we know so little of, could be the key to forest regeneration, allowing megafauna to move back in, not only further benefiting the forest but potentially bringing with them increased appreciation for these charismatic and well-known species.
So, this seemingly unassuming creature holds the potential to breathe life back into the forest; how can we help them do that?
Currently, common palm civets are listed as least concern but declining under the IUCN, and this status awards them no protections on their trade or conservation. Now, common palm civets amongst many other species, such as the Owstens civet (endangered) and Binturong (vulnerable), are victims of a web of exploitation for their meat, pelts, organs and poop.
Kopi luwak or “civet coffee” is another mass-scale threat for civet populations. Captive breeding of civets often ends in failure or severe inbreeding, leading to producers capturing wild individuals. This harnessing of an animal's natural bodily process for capitalist gain results in a disturbing cycle of exploitation which is likely exacerbating their decline.
What are we doing to help?
Recently, our team ventured out on an expedition to Vietnam to film, for the first time, the direct impact of the civet coffee industry on Vietnamese wildlife. With a direct view into how conservationists and animal welfare experts are handling this crisis. Giving multi-perspectives on conservation, animal welfare and unethical wildlife tourism, this documentary will play a pivotal role in increasing public awareness on this industry.
How you can help
There are a few ways you can help save the civets, the simplest one being to help spread awareness and support the research going into protecting these animals. Further actions you can take include:
Keyana Jeffrey is an aspiring conservationist, currently immersed in an MSc in Applied Wildlife Conservation at UWE. While her professional journey is still evolving, Keyana is deeply passionate about restoring nature and promoting coexistence between humans and wildlife. Beyond academic pursuits, she finds solace in the pages of a good book, the quietude of hiking, and the comforting warmth of a cup of tea. For insights into her evolving journey and shared interests in conservation, connect with Keyana on LinkedIn.