IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Ever been woken up in the middle of the night from a peaceful slumber, from what sounds like a parrot being strangled by a horde of loud and obnoxious rats, which is then more often than not, followed by a pungent smell of urine? If so, you can thank an Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) for that. Locally known as civet cat (due to their cat like appearance), Kalaveddha / කලවැද්දා or Uguduwa / උගුඩුවා, their loud nocturnal theatrics and unsavory toilet manners have earned them some bad credit with the locals. If you do find one at home, don’t panic and don’t go to irritate it. Wait till it leaves and remedy any entrance points which it can use to enter the rafters/false attics (some chicken wire mesh to block entrances will do the trick).

But like most urban wildlife, they make up for their loose bladders and loud mouths by preying on rodents that inhabit the house they live in, thus effectively ridding your house of vermin. Asian palm civets are omnivores, and have a particular fondness for ripe fruit (mango, papaw, passion fruit, and pineapple are favourites),treacle palm (kithul) seeds, insects, and the occasional snail/slug if they happen to come across one. Much like the small Indian civets (Viverricula indica), they won’t mind raiding a poorly constructed coop to have some chicken. All this means that they are mainly arboreal as opposed to the small Indian civets, and they help maintain healthy tropical ecosystems by dispersing seeds which are already fertilized within their feces (the power of poop!). But their love of fruits can land them in trouble sometimes. When they gorge themselves on the wild banana species called “aeti kesel” (Musa balbisiana) whose seeds are substantially larger than the cultivated variants, the seeds can clog their anus’s and make the passing of feces troublesome, bringing them much discomfort. This has given rise to the Sinhala saying which goes along the line of “like the palm civet who ate wild bananas (ඇටි කෙහෙල් කාපු උගුඩුවා වගේ)” and it is used at those who have landed them in a sticky situation without a way of getting out of it.

Asian palm civets do love a good drink (cue “Sumihiri Paane”) and will sniff out toddy (a local alcoholic drink made from fermented coconut flower sap) if it is nearby and lap on it to their heart’s content (their way of TGIF). Their boozy antics are closely rivaled by the endemic Sri Lankan hanging parrot (Loriculus beryllinus), which literally pass out inside toddy collecting pots after having a bit too much, only to be discovered by the disgruntled toddy tappers in the morning (then comes the flight of shame, plus a killer hangover). Their love for toddy has therefore earned them the nickname “toddy cat”.

Asian palm civet investigating the fruits of a palm tree, in an urban garden in Colombo. Video sent in by (Uncle) Mike Anthonisz.

The species is spread throughout the island, and has a wider spread than that of the small Indian civet. Like the small Indian civets, they are mainly nocturnal and territorial but might step out during the day if not harassed (but they do avoid foraging on full moon nights, probably to avoid predators). Damp, shady places like the rafters and false attics of urban and suburban homes which border a forest patch or a wetland are ideal spots for them. These civets are solitary creatures, and if you see multiple individuals at the same time, it might be a mother with her brood. They also engage in scent marking and unlike Indian civets, they do this by dragging their bottoms on the ground (similar to dogs, but if your dog drags its bottom on the ground like this, it needs worm medication and it is not scent marking!). Very little is known about their mating rituals, but a couple of Asian palm civets have been observed copulating four to five times with slight intervals in between. Females usually give birth in between October to December, and a litter will have between three to four cubs.

They do enjoy a certain level of safety in Sri Lanka apart from the occasional roadkill. Though, like most wildlife, the biggest threat they face here is habitat destruction and deforestation. But in certain Southeast Asian countries they are caged under appalling conditions and force-fed coffee beans to produce “Kopi Luwak”. This is a supposed delicacy made up of coffee beans which undergo a chemical change as they pass through the civet’s digestive system, before being pooped out. The beans are then collected and washed of all signs of poop before being sold as an exotic variety of coffee. The more appeal for Kopi Luwak means the more endangered the Asian palm civets’ existence becomes. Since they play an important part in the spread of ecosystems, their loss will be monumental.

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Chances of having a backyard garden of sorts is not so uncommon these days if you have the space – a beneficial trend of sorts borne of the lock downs which were imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 – and you’d wake up one morning and pay a visit to see how those vegetables are coming along with your morning tea in hand, when suddenly your right foot sinks underground, upsetting the hot tea on yourself. There you are, turning the sky blue for miles along with such colourful language which would make a sailor blush, while frantically trying to pull your foot out, wipe that hot tea off your chest, and trying not to step on shattered pieces of mug, while not letting the sarong slip off. 

After this sudden turn of tragic events has passed and with a clear head you go on to inspect.

Then you note that the Manioc (Manihot esculenta) roots you’ve been carefully cultivating for weeks have been nibbled and munched with relish. A quick look reveals that the hole in the ground was caused by some really articulate tunneling. And then it clicks!

It’s the signature handiwork of a greater bandicoot rat (Bandicota indica) or as it locally known (with gritted teeth) as “ඌරු මීයා (ooroo meeya)” which literally translates to “pig-rat”. It is called as such not because it’s rosy pink and wallows in mud. It’s called so, because when it feels threatened, it will raise its bristly guard hairs (like some knock-off porcupine) and grunt like a small, yet very angry pig. They are big and can get bigger if there is ample opportunity for scoring food. They are not fastidious (not concerned about the what, when, where, how when it comes to food) eaters and would eat anything from grain, household waste, vegetables, fallen fruit, tubers, roots, yam etc…, making farmers and gardeners around the country to roll their shirt cuffs and shorten the length of their sarongs at the tell-tale signs of their presence.

Greater bandicoot rat grunting angrily. Video by Anya Ratnayaka.

Greater bandicoot rats are notorious for their tunneling skills and if the soil is moist and easy to break (like the embankments you find in paddy fields), expect a series of tunnels that would win a standing ovation from any VietCong. The tunnels are used mainly for shelter rather than being used as a larder. Adults are aggressive towards each other and if placed in the same enclosure, they will fight to the death. Their lifespan is about a year and therefore they mature very quickly as characteristic of their species, where the pups (newborn bandicoot rats are named as pups… awww!) sexually mature within 50 – 60 days. A female is capable of producing 8 – 10 litters during her lifetime with 8 – 14 pups per litter.

They are classified as vermin and are also disease vectors (vectors are living organisms that spread infectious agents like a virus or a bacteria from an infected animal to a human or another animal) for deadly diseases like hantaviruses, bovine schistosomiasis and leptospirosis and for the rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis). Sadly we humans are contributing for their population boom by our improper management of waste (garbage sites are like K-Zones for these guys). Eliminating their natural predators like rat snakes, civets etc… would also contribute for them to thrive because it upsets the natural balance of ecosystems. Now terminating them left right and center and wiping them off the planet won’t do any good also because as mentioned earlier, they happen to be prey to certain animals and upsetting the way of nature is never a good idea. Best example would be Mao Zedong and his four pests campaign where he named the sparrow as a pest because sparrows ate the rice crop. Then the Chinese people were forced to kill as many sparrows as they can because the propaganda stated that less sparrows would mean more rice crop. Sparrows were driven to near extinction in China and instead of booming the crops, it bombed them because the insect population skyrocketed, driving the crop yield to abysmal levels which caused a famine which caused the deaths of approx. 15 million Chinese people. See how that escalated? Sure bandicoot rats are pests but their population controlling MUST be done after considering all the pros and cons. You can just contribute simply by disposing your garbage properly, having a cat around the house etc. It’s the smallest things that make the biggest change in the end.

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Indian rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa) also known as Oriental rat snakes have this triggered “what the…” look, like always. It’s like when someone stole your parking space (or when someone takes Joey’s food). It’s not because they had a bad day or anything it’s because that’s how they have evolved to look like. Just because they look like they want to fight you in a dark alley does not mean that they are dangerous. They’re harmless and non-venomous and just want to have some rats for dinner, hence their name. They don’t discriminate though, they prey on mice too, thus contributing to controlling rodent populations. Their harmless nature is known even in Sinhalese culture where there is a saying that goes like this “ගැරඬි මරලා පව් පුරව ගන්න එපා” and translates to “don’t go accruing sins by killing rat snakes”. 

The chances of seeing a rat snake in your home garden or down your street is high, because they are very well adapted to urban environments. The boom in the urban rodent count caused  by our reckless and selfish garbage dumping methods are also a contributing factor to the rat snake’s All Day Neighbourhood Pass. If you do see one near your house however, don’t panic. And DO NOT douse them with a bucketload of gasoline, because chances are, that in a moment of panic you might end up dousing your office clothes which are hung out to dry instead. Good luck explaining to your boss why you smell like a CEYPETCO shed. Plus, kerosine greatly irritates their skin if it gets past the scales. So just make sure all entry points to the house are closed or barred and wait until it moves out. Usually when they sense human presence, they slither away fast. 

Rat snake sunning herself on a garden fence. Photograph by Mihiri Wikramanayake.

Talking about rat snakes slithering (not to be mistaken for the Hogwarts house, Slytherin) away, they are quite agile and fast-moving when needed. They are a diurnal, semi-arboreal and highly territorial species and will defend their territories aggressively (much like you and I would defend our own homes). They happen to be the second largest snake in the country, after the Indian Rock Python (Python molurus), and if conditions are right, they can grow up to eight feet in length. If threatened, they may flatten their necks and emit a sort of growl to deter the threat. Unfortunately, this warning display can bring about their end because many people often  mistake them for  the spectacled cobra (Naja naja). Female rat snakes lay a batch of eggs that number between six to 15, and they (the adults, not the eggs!) breed year-round in tropical climates.

The amnesty and personal space that they experience in Sri Lanka are not shown elsewhere. And sadly, they are hunted illegally for their skin and sometimes for their meat at largely unsustainable and damaging levels to the ecosystems that they are an important part of.