Where do you meet someone who investigates wildlife trade and who's tried the most expensive and smooth coffee in the world, to talk to them about their experience with civet coffee? An ethical fair trade local coffee shop of course! Unfortunately, on this bright sunny day in Brighton, I waited (rather sheepishly) in front of what once was a well-known coffee shop but what is now a vacated building. Well, this is going well. Fortunately for me, Aaron Gekoski, environmental photojournalist, film-maker and TV presenter, finds the funny side. "Well it certainly is minimalist", we agree to find somewhere else.
Aaron's portfolio of work is impressive. His back story is interesting (having left his home and career as a model in London, to pursue a passion of wildlife photography and investigating wildlife trade across the world). But what interested me the most about Aaron, is his strong ambition to not only share his films and photographs with the general public, but to involve them in the story to make a real difference to the way in which we interact with animals in modern society. Aaron recently founded the Raise the Red Flag Initiative. The concept: see animal exploitation? Raise the red flag.
Raise the Red Flag is a global initiative to raise awareness about cruel Wildlife Tourism Attractions. Aaron first conceived the idea in order for tourists to report (or "raise the red flag") if they witness animal cruelty on holiday. With help from Web Designer and Developer, Steven Dean, Raise the Red Flag was born. Aaron then partnered with Born Free Foundation where the Raise the Red Flag initiative was launched in August 2019 as a global campaign.
So what constitutes a cruel Wildlife Tourism Attraction? I put this question to Aaron, who explained there are guidelines on what tourists are encouraged to report. "We have general parameters with the platform about what constitutes red flags. Animals shouldn’t be used in performances, they shouldn’t be ridden, they shouldn’t be used as selfie props and so on". Aaron was right, the eye witness report tourists are asked to complete when requesting a red flag to be raised, is extremely clear on what information is required. Reports must include descriptive detail including approximate enclosure sizes, condition of the animals, enrichment, furnishings, number of animals and even the name of the travel company if the attraction visit was part of an organised excursion. As a case in point, Raise the Red Flag is supported by British Airways, proving the important impact such a platform has on travel providers whose client base includes wildlife tourists.
What I found interesting when viewing the report questionnaire was the following statement: "Describing cages as ‘small’, conditions as ‘terrible’ or animals looking ‘sad’ will not provide enough information to encourage the relevant authorities to take action". Why do I think this clarification is important? Because the ways in which humans view animals is subjective and is strongly influenced on their own morale boundaries, philosophies and identity of self. What one person may describe as "cute" could be described as "cruel" by another. This has been well documented in investigations of viral videos such as the tickling loris.
I was curious as to the relevance of the initiative to Kopi Luwak production, an area of Wildlife Tourism that has exploded in popularity in the past 5-10 years. Kopi Luwak (aka civet coffee) is a luxury coffee which is produced from coffee beans that have been partially digested and excreted by the civet. The civet's digestive enzymes alter the flavour of the coffee beans, resulting in a smooth taste with less acidity that other coffee drinks on the market. Kopi Luwak can reach prices of up to £80 per cup in Europe, yet tourists can experience this in-situ for ~£6.00 a cup when visiting Bali. Kopi Luwak plantations have emerged to meet the rising tourist demand, housing caged civets producing this luxury consumable. Tours of the facilities are common place which end with tourists trying the drink before purchasing as much as they like from the onsite shop.
Aaron explained that these facilities meet several requirements of a red flag. Civets are nocturnal, yet they are housed in facilities open throughout the day. Many enclosures are unsuitable in their size and construction, with limited access to water and shade. Civets are also primarily asocial, meaning they do not live in groups in the wild. Yet farmed civets are housed in close proximity to each other both day and night.
These factors all seem like logical reasons to warrant a red flag, but I was curious as to how Aaron perceived the numerous Kopi Luwak cafes that have cropped up throughout Bali. Non-assuming and charmingly comfortable, Kopi Luwak cafe's do not have caged civets on site. They do however have, what one could only describe as "pet" civets. Lazily sloped over the coffee counter, tourists can enjoy their Kopi Luwak experience in close proximity to a live civet- also the perfect opportunity for that vital animal selfie that guarantees the immediate gratification sought after on social media. These animals do not appear to be in distress, they do not appear unlike our domestic cat companions back home.
So is this practice exploitative? In Aaron's opinion, yes. The same parameters apply- these animals are nocturnal, asocial, and unfortunately they are most likely sourced illegally from the wild in order to entice tourists into cafes. They are not suited to a cafe environment. But I can see why tourists are attracted to these cafes...surely there needs to be greater awareness as to why this practice is unethical?
Not only is this where the Raise the Red Flag initiative comes into play, but this is also why Aaron works with various NGO's and media platforms to share his experiences and highlight cruel Wildlife Tourism. Aaron explains to me the importance of approaching these issues in an accessible way from a Journalists perspective. By utilising the media, Aaron can share his photos to reach a wide demographic, making his story accessible to people who may not already be aware of wildlife issues.
So where do I come in with "the Civet Project" and my PhD research? Well, I'm trying to understand the ways in which people perceive, prioritize and interact with civets within various contexts. Aaron and I both agree that greater investment in public education is needed to truly influence human-civet interactions for the better of conservation and animal welfare. I wonder what education is out there, in civet-housing zoos, in the press and on social media? It will be an interesting journey, and I am enjoying approaching the subject in an impartial yet inquisitive way.
A huge thank you goes to Aaron for partaking in the Civet Project, and best of luck to him for his future endeavours.
Aarons recent documentary on Otter trade can be watched here
Aarons portfolio of works can be found here.
You can "Raise the Red Flag" here.
If you would like to participate in my research by sharing your civet or kopi luwak experience, please register your interest by email: firstname.lastname@example.org