Civet Series 4: Owston’s Civet
This post is the final in a four part series about civets, written by Jes Hooper.
Hi there Fanimals! Welcome back to the final blog post in the special edition civet series.
So far, we have introduced the Viverridae family, the ancient lineage of cat-like animals, and we have seen how their relationships with humans have shaped global social ecologies (through consumerism and tourism) and changed the very nature of the animals of focus (through selective breeding in the pet trade). We have seen that whether it be in civet coffee production or tourism, or as beloved pets or as hobbiest intrigue, civets are thoroughly embedded in the lives of humans in a variety of contexts. This week I want to talk to you about how we go about protecting the animals who we share our planet with, and I will do so by introducing you to a new member of the civet family.
Despite the Viverridae family containing many interesting species, throughout this blog we have focused primarily on the Asian palm civet (though many members of the family Viverridae are included in the pet trade). One of the reasons Asian palm civets, more so than other civet species, finds herself embroiled in exploitative industries, is because she receives limited legal protections. Why? Because the Asian palm civet is listed by the IUCN as common because she is abundant in her home range and well adapted to anthropogenic (human altered) landscapes. In short, she is a survivor. What would happen then, if along with habitat destruction and climate change, the pet and kopi luwak trades were to decimate her population numbers and her conservation status were to change to “vulnerable to extinction” or “endangered”? Well, all the while her species population was numerically bleak, her individual life would be significantly more valuable. Yet there seems to be a hypocrisy here, why should the legal status of an animal only come into play once the species is struggling to survive? Should we not instead address the causes of species decline rather than the symptoms? In order to evaluate the human-animal interactions within conservation efforts, we can once again turn to a member of the Viverridae family. It is time to introduce you to the palm civet’s endangered cousin: the Owston’s Civet (Chrotogale owstoni).
The Owston’s Civet
The owston’s civet is found in primary and secondary forest in Vietnam, Laos and southern China. Slender and elegant in build, the owston’s civets is highly elusive and solitary in nature. Unlike palm civets however, the owston’s civet is primarily ground dwelling. Her diet, although varied, consists mostly of earth worms and so she spends most of her time on the forest floor. Unfortunately, this makes her highly vulnerable to poacher’s snares, and hunting for civet meat has been identified as the driving force behind an estimated 50% population decline in just three generations. Increased road access into regions otherwise secluded from human activity, has also opened large areas of the forest, making hunting possible in spaces which used to be relatively safe from human entry. Although hunting civets is prohibited in some areas, laws are not well enforced and a rising trend in favor of civet meat within the Asian market has also pushed the owston’s civet towards the brink of extinction.
As we have seen above, it is human activity (or inactivity in respect to the lack of law enforcement) that is shaping the future of owston’s civets in the wild. In-situ efforts, such as protected areas, hunting restrictions or bans, and education programs require a coordinated and consistent approach in order to be effective. Yet culture, economics and social status all influence human decision-making processes, and not always (indeed, rarely) do these decisions positively impact the lives of animals. That is where the benefit of the endangered status comes in. Once a species is listed as endangered, it is assigned formal recognition that it requires the aid of conservationists. In fact, to conserve a species, a huge number of stakeholders are required from zoologists and conservationists to legislators, educators and the general public.
In 2019, the owston’s civet was recognized as a species of global conservation concern, and a gathering of 57 stakeholders met in Vietnam to discuss the future management of the species. Within the meeting, there were representatives from the IUCN Species Survival Commission, civil society organizations, members from zoos across the region and from Europe, and members of the Vietnamese government. The result was a ten-year action plan which included the enhancement of an ex-situ (captive) breeding program that would be facilitated by zoos in Europe in partnership with in-situ organizations in Vietnam. The link between ex-situ and in-situ efforts is very much needed, as zoos can offer not only expertise in captive population management, but they can also provide regular financial support to in-situ efforts. This plan relies on communication between many stakeholders from different regions of the world, which requires navigation of the differences in languages, cultures, political priorities and economics. For every single individual animal entering this conservation program, there are a long chain of humans all working together to make it happen.
Although this is a brilliant step forward for conserving an endangered species, there are already so few animals in the captive population, that there are concerns as to whether the current ex-situ owston’s civet population is even viable. Why then, are we waiting until a species is on the brink of disappearance (at the hands of humans!) before we step in and try to help? In short because conservation efforts prioritize those with the most need. Although this, at first, sounds reasonable, it is also significantly short sighted. The reason you will not see a palm civet in a zoo program any time soon is the same reason that you will keep seeing palm civets in advertisements for Bali holidays and for kopi luwak. It will only be when these trades push the palm civet to the brink of extinction, that she will be entitled to better protection.
What can we learn from the Owston’s civet?
By looking at the different way’s humans interact with members of the family Viverridae we can see that human-animal encounters differ significantly because of the status value assigned to animals. Whether that is the status of “pet”, “pest”, “coffee producer”, “food”, or indeed whether the animal is “common” or “endangered”, the titles we assign animals directly shape the ways in which animals live, reproduce, and even die. Equally, it is the interactions within these assigned status values which shape human lives. To this end, the owston’s civet offers us a further moment of reflection, for it was the plight of one species which brought delegates from all over the world together. The owston’s civet thus reminds us that we can cooperate across geographic, cultural, political and language boundaries for the prospect of multi-species flourishing. The owston’s civet connected a complex web of human activity with one shared focus, one shared objective: to save her.
Call to action!
Throughout this civet blog series, we have been ending with a call to action, a simple promise to ourselves to behave responsibly with the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves and to respect those whom we may not even directly see. Whether it be to boycott, question or adopt, each call to action has been a way to promote a deeper understanding of the ways in which we are connected to non-human lives. We can live symbiotically and ethically with animals; we just need to listen to them a little more carefully.
Reflect, Respect, Support!
This week I urge you to reflect on the status value you assign to animals in your everyday life. Do these assigned titles (such as “pet”, “pest” or “food”) unethically impact your treatment of them? And if so, is there any way you can alter your behavior to avoid causing unnecessary harm?
I also urge you to support the hard work of conservation organizations, be it through the sharing of a conservation campaign on social media, donating or signing a petition. Every small action has the potential to instill positive change, let us begin working together!
A huge thank you to Fanimal for having me as guest blogger for this special civet series. I have very much enjoyed engaging with the Fanimal community, and I hope you have learned a thing or two about civets and human-animal encounter from my being here. If you would like to follow my PhD project progress or would like to get in touch with me about my work, you can find more information and my contact details on my website: www.thecivetproject.com
About the author:
Jes Hooper  is an Anthrozoology PhD student at the University of Exeter and a member of Exeter’s Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) working group . 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 , 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,  and blogs under the name Shilo & Patch .