Civet Series 2: Kopi Luwak Tourism Trade in Bali

This post is the second in a four part series about civets, written by Jes Hooper.

Welcome back Fanimals, to the special blog series on human-civet encounter. This week I will be sharing with you my recent work on the kopi luwak (civet coffee) tourism trade in Bali, Indonesia. 

For the past year, I have been documenting reviews left on the online platform and speaking to holiday makers who have visited kopi luwak plantations. In total I have analyzed 3,364 online reviews of 22 kopi luwak plantations housing live civets. My aims with this research are to understand how civets are housed in tourism settings, how civets are interacting with tourists and what tourists think about their kopi luwak experience. It is my hope that in doing so, I can share the civet’s story and provide recommendations for the practice of ethical tourism.

What are kopi luwak plantations?

Kopi luwak plantations are dotted throughout the main tourist trail in Bali, from Denpasar airport in the south to the popular tourist hiking sight Mount Batur, in the North. In fact, my first discovery on beginning my research, is that kopi luwak plantations have grown exponentially since the industries emergence, less than 10 years ago. This demonstrates the popularity of kopi luwak as a tourist activity on the island, and the financial benefit the industry has for the local economy. Tourism is extremely important for Bali, given that 80% of its inhabitants rely on the tourism sector for their income. 

Kopi luwak plantations are a dime a dozen in Bali, each site is based upon the same format. Let us imagine you are there, as a tourist, visiting one of the 25 sites I surveyed in my investigation.

It’s your first day out in Bali, you’ve been sightseeing, and you’ve become very chatty with your lovely taxi driver who has escorted you to various sites around the island. You hadn’t heard much about kopi luwak before, but your taxi driver exclaimed “you must try kopi luwak when in Bali, it is the most expensive coffee in the word!”  On his recommendation, you agree to a short stop and he drops you off at the car park of a “kopi luwak agrotourism” tour. You don’t see what the fuss is about at first, it does not look dissimilar from other roadsides you have passed so far. Upon leaving the car, you are promptly met by a tour guide at a discretely sign posted entrance, she speaks excellent English and she makes you feel very welcome as she guides you and your friends through a small garden. In the garden, you are shown a variety of tropical plants including, of course, coffee. You are encouraged to look closely at the beans, to see the difference in Arabica and Robusta coffee, and the male and female coffee bean. 

 You are then shown along a garden path to a series of small square cages, with wire mesh floors and walls. Inside you see a small cat-like animal. She is asleep on the floor, there is a bowl of water and a tray of coffee cherries beside her. Below her curled up form, you see she rests directly above a tray that collects her faeces as it falls through the slats. You see the scat is pitted with beans, and the guide offers you the chance to see the scat up close, directing your gaze towards a Perspex box filled with civet samples. Whilst the tour guide is telling you how the civet loves to eat coffee, and how they are shy and nocturnal animals, you notice something out of the corner of your eye. It is a movement- a very quick but repetitive shadow, moving from one end of a cage to another. You realize that the row of cages is joined together, only mesh separating one small space from the next, and in each individual compartment there is a civet.

Some are lying on the floor, others have a perch to sit on, and several are all making the same motion that first caught your eye. Each civet in motion is pacing from left to right, from right to left, and swinging its head in circles each time it turns to pace back along the same short path. It looks as though these animals have gone mad. You ask the tour guide “how long has this civet been in here?”

“We let them out at night” the guide replies. Your group are swiftly moved on to see how the coffee beans are harvested from the scat, but not before you notice the padlocks on the cages are covered in cobwebs.

Next up you are introduced to a gentle looking elderly Balinese women, roasting coffee beans on the fire. Your friends have fun grinding the beans using a giant pestle and mortar, just as the locals would do, whilst you stare in fascination at the elderly lady, her face could tell a thousand stories. You choose to sit with her a while, to soak up this authentic experience.

With the short tour over, you’ve seen the production process of kopi luwak from bean to cup. Your group are shown to a table, on a raised platform overlooking the most beautifully lush green backdrop of the jungle canopy and the rice paddies below. 

You’re then presented with a selection of traditional teas and coffees, all for free, and you’re offered a cup of kopi luwak for a small fee. At only $5USD, this is a fraction of the price you’d have to pay back at home where a cup of kopi luwak can reach anywhere up to $100! The tour has been informative, interesting and you want to support the kind old lady who’s labored over the coffee for hours. You pay the $5 and sit sipping your coffee overlooking the view, totally immersed in the Balinese landscape. It’s a shame there are some building works in the distance. You feel both privileged to see the real authentic Bali, but also slightly sad that the view is being blotted by human construction.

Before leaving the plantation, you and your friends decide to try the jungle swing, after all, you can’t visit Bali and not share a photo on Instagram of yourselves swinging over the jungle!

What does this story reveal?

Time and time again I read this same story, from the 3,364 reviews I read from Trip Advisor. What this narrative tells us, is that whilst marketed as traditional and authentic Agrotourism, the kopi luwak tourism plantation is in no way authentic. 

It tells us that tourists want to feel immersed in a traditional narrative, so much so, that the suffering of animals goes relatively unnoticed. Those tourists who did complain about the welfare standards afforded to civets on display, still frequently admitted they purchased and drank the product which binds the civets to their cages. The exclusivity of the experience, the opportunity to taste the coveted drink in its place of origin, was deemed as a once in a life time opportunity, one which shouldn’t be refused particularly when it’s helping the local economy. We see here a colonial rhetoric, one in which the tourist sees themselves as a savior to less developed communities, whilst simultaneously denouncing the destruction of land for human use (most likely for the construction of hotels and tourist facilities).

The like for like descriptions of captive conditions for civets for reviews across all surveyed sites (25 plantations in total) further demonstrates the cost paid by non-human others in the kopi luwak tourist experience. Repetitive abnormal behaviours are indicative of poor welfare, as the animal tries desperately to psychologically cope to aversive conditions. Cages are small, restricting movement. Cages are placed in close proximity, civets are solitary animals. Cages are made from wire mesh, mesh causes abrasions and injury. The civets are fed coffee, but civets require a wide and varied diet of fruit and prey animal. The cages described time and time again by tourists cannot and will not ever meet the needs of these animals. The pacing and head swinging behaviours are the civet’s way of telling us they are being exploited. We need to start to listen. 

What can we do?

My call to action to you today, is to boycott kopi luwak plantations when you go on holiday.  This may seem like a simple solution, but as this typical story illustrates, boycotting can be easier said than done. I’ve spoken to many holiday makers who either did not realize they were being guided into a kopi luwak plantation, or were unaware that live civets would be involved in the experience.

Do ask questions

It’s important to ask questions before you enter such sites. If there are live animals to be seen, kindly decline and explain you would otherwise welcome a tour should there not be animals involved. 

If you don’t feel confident or comfortable asking staff, then ask yourself if what you see really reflects reality. Just as we saw here with the cobwebbed padlocks, not everything we are told or everything we see may be as it seems. Many times during my study I read remarks or heard people say “they were just sleeping” when photos and videos of uncaged “sleeping” civets told a different story, a story of bodily control as civets were drugged to enable free contact animal selfie opportunities.

Don’t judge others

Be aware of your privilege, be mindful that tour operators are usually seeking to meet the demands of the tourist. If you stop supporting enterprises that involve animals, then the industry will stop providing opportunities which rely on animal suffering. Look at your own behaviours and your own morals. If you do find yourself in one of these plantations, at the very least don’t purchase the kopi luwak, don’t directly pay for animal exploitation.


About the author:

Jes Hooper [1] is an Anthrozoology PhD student at the University of Exeter and a member of Exeter’s Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) working group [2]. Jes’ current research focuses on human-animal encounters within the trade in exotic wildlife for the pet, coffee, tourism and zoo industries. Jes’ PhD project, The Civet Project [3], is a multi-species and multi-sited ethnography following the stories of Viverridae species entangled within live animal trade, with encounters viewed through a trans-species lens. Jes’s work actively engages with interdisciplinary scholarship including collaborations with visual artists, critical tourism academics, conservationists, zoo keepers and fellow anthrozoologists. Jes lectures part time on two undergraduate programs in Animal Behaviour, Welfare and Conservation at Plumpton College, Sussex, [4] and blogs under the name Shilo & Patch [5].