KOTA KINABALU, Aug 1 — The world’s growing obsession with coffee have come up with some impressive new practices.
But in the billion-dollar industry, perhaps no method is stranger — or more notorious— than the technique that defines the world’s most expensive cup of coffee: gathering civet dung.
This is a trend that worries PhD research student Megan Evans, who specialises in carnivorous mammals like Borneo’s civet cats.
Kopi Luwak has earned the title of the world’s most expensive coffee, thanks to its novel form of processing. But while it used to be that the dung was collected from wild civets in coffee plantations, the inevitable demand has caused some farmers to capture and keep civets in appalling conditions, in order to force-feed them coffee berries and harvest the beans on an industrial scale.
It is not known if such practices are prevalent in Sabah, but Evans fears that it may be coming here.
“As far as we know, there are no civet farms in Sabah or Sarawak 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,” she said.
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.
This is also not the first occasion where the civets’ unusual behaviour has been targeted. For hundreds of years, civets have been hunted for their aromatic scent glands, which were used to make 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, in particular in Africa.
The problem is that if demand increases, the temptation of the international will tempt more and more local people to target civets — all for a small quirk of their lifestyles.
In Sabah, civets have also been found in local markets as bushmeat.
“So even if their status is considered safe now, doesn’t mean they will always be. They are also protected species in Sabah,” said Evans, adding that there is no estimated population size of the civets in Sabah.
Evan’s study of the civet is highlighted in the latest episode of Borneo Jungle Diaries, a webseries which showcases Sabah’s unique wildlife from the perspective of researchers at the Danau Girang Field Centre.
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.
For her PhD research, Evans uses the civets medical data 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. 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,” she said.
In order to paint a picture of Borneo’s fragmenting landscape, Evans and her team tracks and monitors the health and behaviours of civets by taking its blood and physical measurements, as well as hair samples in order to measure how heavily the civets have been imposed to industrial metals and chemicals.
Finally, they pair this information with tracking data from GPS collars, that allow them 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.
“Knowing more information about how civets are surviving is going to at least help fight the fight that needs fighting,” said Evans. By understanding these curious, catlike creatures, scientists 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.
All episodes of Borneo Jungle Diaries have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and be released SZtv’s website (Scubazoo.tv) and Youtube (@ScubazooTV), as well as on the Facebook pages of SZtv (fb.me/scubazoo.tv) & DGFC.
Viewers are also encouraged to participate in the competition by answering five questions correctly to be in contention for the weekly prize.