Urban Wildlife Series: Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus)

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.

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