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Civets under threat from exotic coffee
Published on: Sunday, July 30, 2017

COFFEE keeps the world awake.

With an estimated 2.25 billion cups drank each day, coffee has grown from a bitter African berry to perhaps being the global beverage, in an industry worth over US$100 billion. After oil, coffee is the most sought-after commodity in the world!

Demand for coffee is growing worldwide, and with it come ever stranger and more specific methods of growing, gathering, cultivating and consuming it. Perhaps no method is stranger – or more notorious – than the technique that defines the world's most expensive cup of coffee – that gathered from the dung of civets.

This is a trend that worries Meg Evans – a PhD student from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who has called Borneo home for nearly five years. Her research field looks at carnivorous mammals – a group of animals of which Borneo has a unique range and diversity, from sun bears to civets – and their responses to landscape fragmentation.

For her PhD research, Meg uses data gathered from the medical records of civets, to assess how changes in habitat affect the lifestyle and health of these creatures. These findings can be extrapolated to give the jungle its own kind of health check. "I love it", she says, "using science of the civets to answer really pressing questions – how wildlife can actually persist"; flourishing and adapting in a landscape that is changing faster today than it has done for millennia.

Civets Civets occupy a strange niche in the natural world. They are viverrids, a primitive kind of feliform, or cat-like, mammal – so it is unsurprising that Civets are commonly mis-identified as a kind of cat.

Found throughout Borneo, civets are a relatively common sight in the rainforest, and generally thought to be of "least concern" on the IUCN list of endangered animal species.

However, with the increasing fragmentation of the island's natural landscapes, thanks to human industry and urban expansion, plus the growing commercial demand for Kopi Luwak, the ultra-valuable coffee made using beans that have been reclaimed from the dung of civets.

Among the coffee community, Kopi Luwak is a cause of controversy. There are no measurable benefits to the coffee produced from civet dung. Having spent time in the animal's digestive tract, it is lower in caffeine and higher in acidity than conventionally farmed coffee – traits that, some argue, create a drink of unique flavour and delicacy. However, other coffee experts dismiss these claims as nonsense, and dismiss civet coffee as a gimmick that exploits the dietary habits of these gentle creatures.

Coffee Controversy Some drinkers and roasters are fascinated by the strange journey Kopi Luwak takes from bush to beverage; others fear the inevitable demand placed on farmers to hunt and imprison civets, in appalling conditions, in order to force-feed them coffee berries and harvest the beans on an industrial scale.

It is not known to what extent this industry has sprung up in Sabah; but Meg fears that it may be coming here.

"As far as we know, there are no civet farms in Sabah or Sarawak" she tells me – "but we don't know everything".

The fear is that, despite claims that Kopi Luwak is naturally picked, "most of the time these come from caged civets" – and without proper education, demand is likely to increase.

This is not the first time civets' unusual behaviour has been targeted. Since ancient times, civets have been targeted for their aromatic scent glands that produce "musk", which is used in perfume.

While this practice has been supplanted by the discovery of synthetic formulas in some places in the world, it is still very much around, particularly in Africa. The problem, Meg explains, is that if demand increases, the temptation of the industry will tempt more and more people to target civets.

A New Approach Instead, Meg and her team at the Danau Girang Field Centre, or DGFC, want to use the civets to gather as much information as they can about the land they inhabit. Because civets are omnivorous, their diet exposes them to many elements of Borneo's flora and fauna, and their expansive habitats expose them both to the deep jungle, and are frequently encroached upon by human settlements.

"Its a wonderful species to look at", Meg says, "to find out how the whole ecosystem is bearing up to these habitat pressures".

In order to paint a picture of Borneo's fragmenting landscape, Meg tracks and monitors the health and behaviours of civets. "This is just like a medical a human would have," she says. Like humans, she takes blood and physical measurements, to monitor how individual civets are progressing.

She then takes hair samples in order to measure how heavily the civets have been imposed to industrial metals and chemicals. Finally, Meg and her team pair this information with tracking data from GPS collars, that allow her to see where the civet has visited.

By combining these sectors of information, Meg and DGFC is able to build a model of how an individual civet has reacted to changes and reductions in wild habitats, and discover how these mysterious mammals react when their homes are changed or exposed.

Conservation on Caffeine It's a strange way of getting to know how a whole forest is living and coping with the drastic changes humans bring to it; but Meg believes that it is essential to learn how an individual creature – a key central point in the food chain – absorbs and adapts these changes in their general health and lifestyles.

"Knowing more information about how (civets) are surviving is going to at least help fight the fight that needs fighting".

Meg says. That fight is one that DGFC and its allies face every day. By understanding these curious, catlike creatures, we are able to understand more how our everyday actions can have great and far-reaching repercussions on the environment. That in itself makes what we can learn from civets worth far more than an overpriced cup of coffee.

Borneo Jungle Diaries is produced by SZtv and follows environmental photojournalist, Aaron 'Bertie' Gekoski as he investigates life behind-the-scenes at the Danau Girang Field Centre.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and be released on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

What's more, viewers are encouraged to take part in the competition that is being held;

All you have to do is answer five questions from the episode correctly each week to win a 4-day / 3-night stay the Danau Girang Field Centre. There will also be a grand prize at the end of the 10-series Borneo Jungle Diaries for those who get all questions correct across all quizzes.

For more information, check out Borneo Jungle Diaries on SZtv.

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