By Loretta Shepherd and Chris R. Shepherd
Have you heard of kopi luwak? Civet coffee? Luwak is the Indonesia name for civets, which are small-bodied mammals in the family viverridae, which includes genets, oyans, binturong, and civets (look them up!). Civets are mostly found in Asia, but the kopi luwak industry is largely in Indonesia and features mainly the Common Palm Civet and the Masked Palm Civet.
So, what do civets and coffee have to do with each other?
Kopi luwak refers to coffee beans picked out from civet feces. Yes, you read that right. Made from coffee beans that are eaten by civets, partially digested, and then defecated—and then made into coffee.
Perhaps some coffee connoisseurs have a romantic view of the process, where smiling, batik-clad villagers in remote Indonesia forage the rainforest floor for coffee berries hidden in civet droppings. After enough berries are collected, they are washed, dried, and prepared for packing, perhaps even stamped with something assuring the discerning customer of how natural and eco-friendly this treasure is, with assurances of its wild authenticity to commensurate its hefty price tag—this ranges from $35-$100 per brewed cup and from $600 to $1000 per pound. Kopi luwak is even served at Harrods (GBP 500/250g) of London, known to cater to the upper echelons of English society.
The reality, however, is slightly less romantic.
Wild civets are trapped, often illegally, using snares and other inhumane methods, or mother civets are shot, and the young are taken. They are then confined to small, wire cages on so-called civet farms, and this is where the coffee production takes place: the civets are fed almost exclusively on coffee berries—a far cry from the natural diet of wild civets, which sometimes eat coffee berries along with a wide variety of small animals and eggs, fruit, and other plant matter. The civets are housed in wire-bottom cages, so the feces can conveniently fall through for collection.
They also feature as ‘attractions’ at these facilities and going on a kopi luwak tour allows tourists to have up-close-and-personal encounters with these nocturnal creatures.
According to industry experts, what makes kopi luwak the crème de la crème is that wild civets select the choicest coffee berries to eat, but ‘farming’ these civets in cages and feeding them coffee berries defeats the purpose.
And whether the coffee is truly superior in taste, many people still want to try it as it offers them a taste of luxury and adventure that they have dared to sample something so bizarre and exotic. Buying kopi luwak supports the ongoing trapping of these animals from the wild and the keeping of them in often terrible conditions. Animal welfare organizations have exposed the poor conditions these animals are kept in and have begun work to reduce demand for the civet-processed coffee, coming up with terms like ‘crapiccino’ to help with their messaging. But the welfare aspects are only one part of the problem. By buying this coffee you may be supporting the illegal wildlife trade.
Indonesia is home to a booming illegal wildlife trade, with civets included in the long list of victims. While legislation is in place to allow for a small number of civets to be taken from the wild for the pet trade, the quotas set each year are largely ignored and civets are very often seen in the wildlife markets, being sold illegally along side numerous other species taken illegally from the wild for the pet trade, or to be sold into kopi luwak farms.
Ultimately, there’s no way to tell whether the packaged kopi luwak coffee on the shelf came from truly wild animals or caged ones or whether any of these animals were legally or illegally sourced. And if you can’t be sure, why support something like this? Furthermore, the welfare of these animals on many of the kopi luwak farms is a far cry from adequate.
As the borders open up and you dig out your passport and look for tropical holiday destinations, do your part and be a responsible tourist. Avoid kopi luwak, including tours to kopi luwak facilities. Be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
Loretta and Chris Shepherd both work with the Monitor Conservation Research Society. Chris is also a member of the IUCN SSC Small Carnivore Specialist Group.