Thursday, April 22, 2010

A smelly favourite

Today while searching for Bugbears, I stumbled upon my favourite animal.
Nocturnal, solitary and rare, this creature has influenced human culture for thousands of years.

At first I just glimpsed movement, and then - barely visible in a tangle of leaves - a patch of soft grey fur, patterned with spots of black. I froze, as did the animal, and we both waited. Eventually, with head lowered, the creature crept slowly from the bushes.
It was an African civet.

African civets (Civettictis civetta) look like huge soft toys. Their thick fur is decorated with black splodges, bars and stripes, and their faces are masked just like a racoon's. When alarmed, civets raise a crest of black and white hair that grows along their backs, making them look one third larger. They also give deep, menacing growls which are quite unnerving.
But today's civet was peacefully snooping about for food. This species doesn't only share the racoon's facial markings, it also shares its omnivorous diet, munching on fruit, bugs, small vertebrates and carrion. Unlike the raccoon, however, civets are designed for life on the ground, and their small paws are dog-like and not at all dexterous.

Civets, along with mongooses and genets, are viverrids. They closely resemble the ancestors of all of today's carnivores. Their teeth and skeletons have barely changed during the last 30-40 million years.
Photo by Neil Roux and borrowed from here.

Like mongooses, civets mark their territories with secretions from their anal glands. Reversing up to trees or rocks, they smear on a vile-smelling, thick, yellowish grease that remains detectable for at least four months. Now you might be thinking 'ooh yuk', but are you wearing perfume? Expensive perfume? If so, you probably have a little bit of civet goo on you right now.

The anal gland secretion of African civets ('civet musk') has been traded commercially for thousands of years. Originally used medicinally, it was valued more highly than gold, ivory or myrrh, and was employed as currency in ancient Ethiopia. For many centuries it's been integral to perfume-making because the refined product, civetone, 'fixes' other fragrances and – when highly diluted (1 kg of civet musk makes 3000 litres of perfume) – has a pleasant musky scent. It also seems to be a natural attractant (e.g. field biologists in Central America report that the civetone in Calvin Klein's Obsession is great for attracting jaguars).

Although artificially synthesised civetone has been available since the 1940s, many of the 'exclusive' perfume manufacturers continue to use animal-derived civetone. This is where it gets ugly. Ethiopia produces 90% of the world's civet musk, exporting 1000 kg annually; 85% of which goes to France. The musk is obtained from about 3000 captive civets held on 200 civet farms. A large male civet (who has his anal glands scraped out weekly) produces about 30 g of musk monthly. In 1999, the WSPA (World Society for Protection of Animals) undertook surveys in Ethiopia and reported widespread animal cruelty, with many civet-farmers failing to meet even the most basic husbandry needs, and animals living out their lives in crates too small for them to turn around. At that time, three major perfume manufacturers - Chanel, Lancome and Cartier - admitted to using animal-derived civetone.

I guess what I find most shocking, is that although civiculture has been practiced in Ethiopia for centuries, they've never succeeded in breeding an African civet in captivity! (Apparently Jersey Zoo has done it.) All farmed civets are captured from the wild, and up to 40% die from stress within the first three weeks. With the rampant deforestation that has occurred in Ethiopia over the last couple of decades, I can't imagine how the country's dwindling civet population can possibly sustain this onslaught.

Photo by Maureen Jarratt and borrowed from here.

If you want to read more:
Sustainable Utilisation of the African Civet (Civettictis civetta) in Ethiopia, by Yilma D. Abebe. 2000.
Scent-marking by the African Civet Civettictis civetta in the Menageha-Suba State Forest, Ethiopia. B. Tsegaye, A. Bekele & M. Balakrishnan. 2008.


  1. Another fantastic article Lynda. It is scary to know how much habitat is being lost and that these beautiful creatures are being driven to extinction.

  2. Joan,
    I guess I find it particularly depressing that human vanity causes so much harm to other species. I mean, at least habitat loss is understandable (people need land to survive) but no one 'needs' civet musk, or ivory, or rhino horn.

  3. It's so heartbreaking to see how these wonderful animals have to suffer for the rest of their life in those nasty tiny cages, in an atmosphere thick of smoke, and without bedding.
    What a shame the WSPA shut down the campaign and no other organzation does care for. Guess, the perfume lobby silenced them by a big donation. Sigh...
    Fantastic article as always, Lynda, I'm very fond of these little Civets! Are you thinking of extending your studies on an associated Civet project? Do you need a not so much experienced but very passionated and dedicated 48 yo field assistant? (Don't worry, I'm just joking, more or less)

  4. Lil_Earthwoman,
    I would love to study civets but they are nocturnal and solitary which doesn't make for rewarding research (I learnt my lesson working on koalas in my Honour's year). Not to the issue of money, of course...
    I do sometimes take on volunteer field assistants but I don't think I need anyone this year. And I suspect this going to be my last year of funding for the dwarfs. Sob.

  5. OMG, this would be awful if it didn’t get funded anymore. It’s kind of shock just now since your dwarf studies don’t ran that long compared with other projects. I had a very long talk with someone about rejecting grants. It’s really a hardship, especially as they more and more request studies that interfere in an unacceptable way into the animals’ welfare, like transfer experiments or tests you constantly have to anesthetize individuals, as for this I’m really glad you don’t collar your little dwarfs. (BTW, did you ever try dark black hair dye? That’s not so invasive and should be visible very good too, it turns out blue-ish when fading.) Sadly avoiding collars also limits the range of experiments, heart rate monitoring is a no go, for example. I’m also not a friend of infertility experiments, too much capturing and interference, and finally destroying the groups, so awful, but this is what they request.
    BTW, I’m wondering if the dwarfs behave like the meerkats as for the dominant females evicting subordinates at the end of pregnancy?
    Oh, I wish I would have any good ideas to help you, at least I’m badly keeping my fingers crossed like crazy you still get funded next year, god there is so much you still have to find about these very small (and so darn cute) dwarf mongooses, I believe by their tiny size they have a much different behaviour to their bigger cousins in many ways, right?
    At this point I don’t ask you what you are doing whenever the studies end (it will not, I relay on you), just tell you that you shouldn’t wait too long writing YOUR book. Tim’s about the meerkats got a bestseller and you are a nugget amongst talented scientists. The people are hungry for things like this, as much as for your dwarfs as for your early years with Vivian and Flower Whiskers ;-)

  6. Lil_Earthwoman,
    Thank you for your encouragement.
    Black hair dye doesn't show up well on the dwarfs' dark fur, and it has to be reapplied every few weeks.
    Dwarf mongooses don't evict subordinates and all emigrations appear to be voluntary. Creel's study of dwarfs in the Serengeti suggests that the dominant female actually allows older subordinate females breed, to encourage them to stay in the group.
    I don't know what I'll do after this (I may have to get a real job!!!) but I've no current plans for a mongoose book.


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