Coffee fad revives civet farming

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2010:

DENPASAR, HANOI–Just seven years after
China banned civet farming because of the
association of civet consumption with more than
800 human deaths from Sudden Acute Respiratory
Syndrome, a vogue for pricy civet coffee has
brought the industry back perhaps bigger than
ever–and certainly in many more places.
Sold to coffee snobs as kopi luwak, the
Indonesian word for it, civet coffee is brewed
from the beans that civets excrete after eating
coffee berries, one of their favorite foods.
Civet coffee is by reputation stronger and
usually more aromatic than most coffees.

Collecting and salvaging the excreted
beans from wild civets is so laborious that civet
coffee, known for centuries, has historically
been so costly to produce as to be consumed only
in small amounts by the very rich and jaded. But
civet farming in coffee-growing country has
brought civet coffee within occasional reach of
the merely affluent–at prices of from $50 to
$100 a cup.
The continued existence of a wild civet
coffee industry and the existence of some
free-range civet farms allows consumers to
believe that the civet coffee they drink is not
factory farmed, that the civets who ingest and
excrete the beans will not eventually be sold to
slaughter at live markets, and that their pelts
will not go into the fur trade.
Sometimes this may be true. As the civet
coffee industry grows, however, and competition
for the fast-expanding market increases,
consumers have less and less way to be sure of
knowing exactly where their beans have been.
Recalled Animals Asia Foundation founder
Jill Robinson in a November 2010 posting to the
Asia Animal Protection Network, “Someone sent me
a packet of civet coffee beans last year. Our
then-animal welfare director Mark Jones, now
with Care For the Wild, kindly did some
research.” The company that sold the civet
coffee beans “claimed to use only beans collected
from wild civets, and that most of the profits
go to a civet conservation project in Vietnam.
Naturally this causes concern that others less
ethical might cash in on the established market
and farm the civets.”
“Growing demand is fueling a gold rush in
the Philippines and Indonesia,” reported New
York Times correspondent Norimtsu Onishi in April
2010. “Harvesters are scouring forest floors in
the Philippines. In Indonesia, where the coffee
has a long history, enterprising individuals are
capturing civets and setting up mini-farms.”
Civet dung collectors Alberto Patog, 60,
and his son, Lambert, 20, of the Cordillera
district in the Philippines, “wished they could
expand their business but said there were not
enough civets around,” Onishi wrote. “Local
residents still prize civets less for
coffee-picking ability than for meat.”
The Patogs are among about 20 collectors
who sell the defecated coffee beans they find to
Vie Reyes of Manila, who founded her company,
Bote Central, about five years ago. Reyes told
Onishi that she only buys coffee beans from wild
civets, but that limits her ability to compete
to fill the rising demand–and leaves more market
share to the fast-expanding farmers.
Sumatran civet farmer Mega Kurniawan,
28, in business just two years, already had 102
civets at three locations when Onishi visited.
Each civet produces just over five pounds of
“processed” coffee beans per month. “During the
day,” Onishi wrote, “Kurniawan’s civets sleep
inside small wooden cages before growing active
at dusk. At night, the animals eat from fresh
plates of coffee cherries, replenished every two
hours, or pace at a brisk, caffeinated clip.”
A neighbor, Ujang Suryana, 62, “has
found a way to increase the civets’ output
exponentially by mechanically stripping the
coffee beans from the cherries and mixing them in
a banana mash,” Onishi continued. “The civets
gobble it up. This way, no beans are wasted.
He has raised their dung production from 2.2
pounds a week to a whopping 6.6 pounds a day.”
The Association of Indonesian Coffee
Luwak Farmers, formed in 2009, does not appear
to work with any recognized humane organization
to maintain high animal care standards, but does
try to counter growing concern–including
elsewhere in Southeast Asia–that civet coffee
farms are operating like civet meat and fur farms.

Trung Nguyen

“On our Sumatran civet farm, located in
Lampung province, civets are kept in cages at
night but allowed to roam protected courtyards
during the day, where they can forage for coffee
beans hidden for them to find by the farmers,”
asserts the Vietnamese coffee company Trung
Nguyen, describing the inverse of the normal
activity cycle of civets, normally a nocturnal
species. “The farmer selects beans for the civet
to eat,” Trung Nguyen continues. “The civets
become quite tame and can be handled and accept
treats from their caretaker’s hands. Their
population is preserved by the farm’s breeding
Trung Nguyen also sells Bantai civet
coffee. “This environmentally and ethically
sound coffee comes from the Julia Campbell
Agro-Forest Memorial Park in the Philippines,”
the Trung Nguyen web site says. “The park
shelters the rare Philippines civet,” Paradoxorus
Philippinensis, “and is also home to native
people who live in communion with the civets and
their forest. Purchase of this coffee supports
the maintenance and expansion of the park, as
well as protection for the endangered civets and
the preservation of the indigenous tribal
community of AsiputŠBantai coffee civets live in
an organic preserve and no non-organic coffee
grows within their range.”
Though Trung Nguyen courts expanded
sales abroad, the company primarily produces for
domestic consumption–and Vietnamese consumers
get a different brew.
In Hanoi, “Trung Nguyen Weasel Coffee
sells on every street corner,” reports Kairos
Coalition founder Robert Lucius. “My sense is
that it is more of a label than the actual
product of civets. Friends told me civet coffee
was available in Hanoi but in three years it has
remained elusive. The price for Trung Nguyen’s
version certainly belies its rarity.”
According to the web site,
“The Trung Nguyen Coffee Company hired a German
scientist to research the chemical processes that
occur in the civet’s stomach. In 1996 scientists
were able to isolate six specific digestive
enzymes and then use these enzymes to create a
synthetic soak known as Legendee, which they
patented. Two varieties of Legendee coffee are
offered. Legendee Gold simulates civet coffee
from Arabica coffee beans. Legendee Classic
simulates the civet coffee that comes from a mix
of coffee bean varietals including Arabica,
Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa.
“Other companies market other products
that are sold as simulated civet coffee,” continues. “Some of these are
created by adding flavorings to coffee beans.
Several other animals besides civets have been
used to produce this type of coffee. One animal
used in Malaysia and Indonesia is the barking
deer,” or muntjac. Coffee produced by gathering
beans from muntjac droppings is known as kopi
muntjak or kopi muncak. Virtually all kopi
muntjak is gathered in the wild.”

Factory civet farms

Despite civet coffee industry efforts to
promote the images of beans collected from the
wild and tame civets who eat from farmers’ hands,
contrary observations are frequent.
“The Bali Animal Welfare Association
received two reports this week,” BAWA founder
Janice Girardi e-mailed on November 20, 2010,
“from tourists who were taken on buses to coffee
houses here in Bali that not only served kopi
luwak but had cages where civets were kept just
for viewing. The tourists were upset that the
cages were too small and the animals obviously
Photographer Kemal Jufri illustrated
Onishi’s New York Times article with a close-up
of a miserable-looking civet standing on a wire
floored cage on the second floor of a grim
structure resembling a prison.
This was the reality of civet farming
that the Chinese federal health ministry
addressed on November 2, 2004, banning the
slaughter and cooking of civets for human
consumption to promote “civilized eating habits,”
the state-run Beijing Daily reported.
About 10,000 captive civets were
slaughtered, beginning 10 days after the health
ministry received data showing that 70% of the
captive civets in Guangdong province had tested
positive for SARS. Wild civets appeared to be
unaffected. Though horseshoe bats rather than
civets are believed to be the host species for
SARS, and the captive civets were apparently
infected by human contact, civets are capable of
transmitting SARS back to people.
The Chinese prohibition of civet
consumption was stringently enforced for several
years in Guangdong. Seven thousand health
inspectors in January 2007 visited 10,000
Guangdong restaurants, finding just one live
civet and several frozen civet carcasses. But
Guangzhou Forestry Public Security Bureau
commissar Chen Xibiao alleged to Ivan Zhai of the
South China Morning Post that civet farming
continued in Hubei and Shanxi provinces, to the
north. As the Chinese government is encouraging
rapid expansion of the coffee industry in Yunnan,
to the southwest, there is the possibility that
civet coffee could soon be produced in China as a
lucrative export product.

Civet fur

Then-U.S. Health & Human Serv-ices
Secretary Tommy Thompson in mid-2004 halted
imports of either live or dead civets, plus
civet parts, such as civet pelts, but exempted
products “processed to render them
noninfectious.” Though this exemption allowed
the import of civet coffee, the purpose of it
was apparently to allow continued imports of
finished civet fur garments.
Civet fur hit the U.S. and European
markets in abundance in fall 2003, coinciding
with the Chinese civet ranching boom that
preceded the SARS pandemic. As the connection
between SARS and civets emerged, the fur was
said to be from “Lipi cats” and “genottes,” the
French and Italian spelling of “genet.”
Taxonomists recognize genets and civets as
different branches of a closely related family.
Meat and fur sales are secondary revenue
sources for civet coffee producers.
“Because civet coffee pulls in money, I
imagine civets will be exploited to get it,”
opined Primates for Primates founder Lynette
Shanley from Australia, where civet coffee has
come into vogue among trendy thrill-seekers.
“But realistically civet coffee is very
expensive, so I think that will stop it from
becoming an everyday luxury item. Civet coffee
will only appeal to some, and then even among
those who can afford it once in a while there
will be people who find it revolting, as it has
been through the civets’ digestive tracts.
Hopefully,” Shanley said, “civet coffee will be
a short-lived trend.
But civet coffee has already been consumed in Indonesia for centuries.
Rudy Widjaja, 68, whose family has
operated the Warung Tinggi coffee store in
Jakarta since 1881, told Onishi of The New York
Times that civet coffee was popular with the
Dutch, who ruled most of Indonesia from circa
1650 to 1950, and with the Japanese troops who
occupied Indonesia during World War II. After
that, though, Warung Tinggi did not again sell
civet coffee until 2007.

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