In recent years coffee connoisseurs have increasingly been sipping askopi luwak, some of the most rarefied and expensive coffee beans on the market. Costing hundreds of dollars a pound, these beans are found in the droppings of the civet, a nocturnal catlike creature native to Southeast Asia’s coffee-growing lands that grazes on ripe coffee cherries.
Yes, that’s right; civets eat the fruit and then poop out the indigestible innards. The animal’s stomach acids and enzymes apparently produce a brew described as smooth, chocolaty and devoid of any bitter aftertaste. When I’ve heard of this in the past, I was pretty indifferent to the brew. I surely wouldn’t part with my own hard earned dollars for this expensive coffee, but if you’ve got the money, a palate more sophisticated than mine, and civet coffee makes you happy, all the power to you.
However, I’ve recently changed my tune. Reports have begun to surface that paint a very different picture than that of the harvesters scouring civets’ droppings found on forest floors. What once was a casual cottage industry in Indonesia has morphed into a farming intensive one in which civets are captured, kept in small cages, and fed an unwholesome diet of coffee and, well, only coffee.
"The conditions are awful, much like battery chickens," said Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director of the conservation NGO Traffic south-east Asia. "Civets are taken from the wild and have to endure horrific conditions. They fight to stay together but they are separated and have to bear a very poor diet in very small cages." According to The Guardian, tens of thousands of the animals are likely cooped up in cages and living off of only coffee.
Shepherd recently published a study in Small Carnivore Conservation which looks at the civet trade. He documented vendors selling three species of civets in local markets. While none of these species are currently considered threatened by the IUCN Red List, the trade is completely unregulated and according to Shepherd, likely hurting populations.
“Some species of civets are already threatened by habitat loss, hunting, etc, and this is just one more pressure.”
But whether the species are endangered or not, the practice is often cruel and inhumane. There is no reason why an animal should live out their life in cramped cages and fed poorly simply to enhance the flavor of our coffee. That’s why Shepherd is calling on the Indonesian government to better-monitor and regulate the civet coffee trade.
My guess is that most people drinking civet coffee have no idea that their coffee isn’t coming from forest floors, but rather from civets locked up in cages. And for what? A smooth and chocolaty coffee? Refined palate or not, I suspect most people would lose their craving for the brew if they saw where it was coming from. I certainly hope so anyway.