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Coffee, Perfume and Fur Coats: The Life of the Civet

What do coffee, fur coats, and perfume have in common? All three industries exploit civets. There are thought to be around 20 species of Civet globally, all coming from the family Viverridae. These long-bodied, short-legged carnivores are closely related to the mongoose family and can be found in a range of different habitats. Once common, many civet species are now facing serious population declines, all for the greed of man.

Civet species differ in size and appearance. For example, the smallest member of the Viverrid family is the spotted linsang (Prionodon pardicolor) which weighs 0.6kg. The two largest species are the African civet (Civettictis civetta) and the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) both can reach up to 20kg. Viverrids are mostly carnivorous, their diet consisting of small rodents such as mice and voles, birds and their eggs, reptiles, fruit, nuts and insects. Those species eating more fruits and nuts are ecosystem engineers, aiding seed dispersal for different plant species.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists several civets in danger of extinction. Among these are the Malabar civet (Viverra civettina), which lives in the Western Ghats of India, and the Sunda otter civet, which is native to Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. These elusive specialist species are in decline due to major habitat loss in their jungle homes. However, now the common species such as palm civets, are under threat due to continued human exploitation.

Many people across East Asia and Africa, where civet live, hunt these animals for both their fruit-smelling meat and their fur. Although this is mainly done on a sustenance level. The two areas of mass exploitation come from the perfume and coffee industries. Both of these industries take advantage of these small mammals exploiting them for profit and putting individuals under horrific conditions.

Firstly, if you showed most people a picture of a civet they would not know what animal they are looking at, even less so would they realise that the civet is involved in the production of many high class perfumes. In the wild, civets excrete a fluid from their glands called civet, named after the animal itself. This pasting is used to mark their territory and communicate across different individual ranges. The substance has a very strong musky odour. It is this musk that humans started extracting from the animal to add to perfume with the intention of making the scent last longer.

Ethiopia has the monopoly for global civet musk export and corners 90% of the known market, exporting 2000kg of civet musk and earning around $400 per kg. The African civet, found in all of sub-Saharan Africa, is the prime target for extraction. They are captured and their perineal glands scraped for secretions every ten to twelve days. More recently the secretion of the small Indian civet (Viverricula indica) and of the Oriental civets (Viverra) has been employed commercially in the manufacture of perfume, spreading the practice.

Furthermore, Channel No.5 used civet in their perfume until as late as 1998. They then decided to switch to a man-made form due to increasing public pressure. Unfortunately, there are many other companies that still use the musk directly from the civet despite the alternatives out there. Until all companies switch to the man-made form, this procedure will continue to exploit civet species.

Moreover, the perfume industry is not the biggest threat to civet species. Many civets (mainly in Asia) are being exploited for coffee production. In the Sumatran jungle, as coffee plantations grew, civets would come out at night to eat the ripest coffee cherries. Only it can’t digest the stone (the coffee bean) and it comes out in the animal’s poo. The anal glands impart an elusive musky smoothness to the resultant roasted coffee. As people started to discover this odd process, the industry boomed and civets were taken from the wild to be kept in small cages and be fed only coffee beans in order to produce commercially viable quantities for the industry.

These coffee beans have had many different names. In Vietnam it is called fox-dung coffee. In the US, where the delicacy sells for £175 per one-pound bag, it is named as it is in Indonesia, Kopi Luwak. The only people who drank this drink in the early nineteen hundreds were the poorest of Indonesians, yet now due to radical marketing, it has become an expensive delicacy across the world. Many people buy this product without even knowing what a civet is, let alone knowing under what conditions the animals are kept in order to produce the desired coffee beans.

Unfortunately, these cruel battery farms, especially in Indonesia, are still pouring out tonnes of these beans each year. The trade still pedals the myth that kopi luwak is incredibly rare and derived from coffee chosen by discerning wild civets. These civet farms are merging across south-east Asia, confining tens of thousands of animals to life in tiny cages and be force-fed a debilitating diet. The Asian palm civet is common, but conservationists argue that related species are used under their name as cover, and these species are under threat of extinction.

This devastating exploitation of a relatively unknown species highlights how commercialised consumerism has driven a disconnection between the things we buy and where they come from. Whether in a café in Hanoi or a restaurant in New York, people may want to try this mysterious ‘cat coffee’ which is sold as a luxury item, without ever asking ‘where does this come from?’ or even ‘what is this?’. This is the same issue with the perfume scandal. People across Europe and now Asia spray themselves with musky perfume without ever thinking what is in the bottle.

I would like to think that if people know about what is happening to the civets in order to obtain these two products that they would not want to consume them. However, with the profits of the industry in mind, the issue may never be openly publicised. It is up to conservationists and those that do know, to spread the word and stop the demand. If we can cut the demand, we can stop the trade and we can stop the horrific treatment of these innocent species.

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