Thursday, 13 February 2014

'Cut the Crappacino' - my photo used to help raise awareness of the ethics behind Civet Cat coffee

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A few years ago I tried the curious 'cage-free' blend of Civet cat coffee when I visited a coffee farmer in India. Now one of my civet cat photos is being used as part of a campaign against the booming industry of farmed civet cat coffee in South East Asia "Cut the Crappucino"

Civet coffee, or Kopi Luwak as it’s known in Indonesia, is one of the world’s most expensive drinks, selling for up to £70 per cup - you can try some in Selfridges. It’s made from coffee beans, which have been partially digested by Civet cats, small mammals that look like a cross between a weasel and a cat. Their digestive enzymes denature the beans and alter the final taste, which according to coffee experts, gives the coffee its uniquely smooth and rich flavour. But is it cruel or unethical?

Civet Cat by Paul Williams

The Ethical Blend
In a small village close to Bangalore in South India I met Ganesh, a coffee farmer, locally famous for his special brew. Every December his estate is visited by a hoard of tiny palm civets who come for the succulent red coffee fruits, selectively picking the ripest and sweetest, wolfing them down during the night. While the damage is minimal many crop producers might go to the extreme to protect their livelihood from such an invasion, yet for Ganesh, a keen Wildlife watcher, it's actually a treat. Since reading an article in National Geographic about the production of Kopi Luwak in Korea he has simply just let the Civets get on with their nocturnal gorging. On occasion he even catches them in the act and just keeps his distance observing them as they stand on their hind legs to reach the best fruit. 'It's only the fruity outer layer that their interested in' He goes on to tell me how the two coffee beans at the core of each fruit are concentrated, cleaned and processed as they pass through the civets digestive tract, eventually being dumped - usually under a coffee plant for Ganesh to find in the morning. 'All I have to do is go around popping the poop into a basket for roasting later.' he says with a grin.

Palm Civet Scat by Kalyan Varma

Tasting the Crap
It's not as disgusting as it might sound. The faeces of the Palm Civet actually resembles a healthy snack bar - packed with grain and little else - solid and compact. 'very little mess' he assures me 'although my sister won't touch it with a barge pole' he says with a laugh. What usually takes Ganesh five days of processing is achieved in one night by the Civet. No wonder he likes it. He usually collects about 5 kgs in a season, enough for about 200 cups. This is a considerable amount when you consider that only 450 kgs ever reach the world market per year, almost all from the far east. It's rareity not only brings in a high market rate - £50 a cup in Selfridges, London - but it also brings a torrent of visitors to Ganeshs door. Every one keen to give it a try. He doesn't sell it but he does enjoy the reaction.

Now it's my chance to try this much prized delicacy. Ganesh has noticed that I've been suspiciously swilling the cup in my hands for a while now. 'Go ahead it's the best cup of coffee you'll ever have' he says confidently. I raise the cup to my nose and take a deep whiff. The aroma is sweet, rich, smooth, the usual biterness of coffee has been replaced with a subtle hint of chocolate. It's nothing spectacular but it is pleasant. As he gestures for me to continue I nervously purse me lips over the edge of the bone china and gulp... After a moment allowing my taste buds to recoil from the expected onslaught I find them being seduced by the flavour. It is, as it smelt - rich and smooth. To me it tastes a bit nutty. As it swirls around my mouth it enchants my palette. I'm being carried away by the flavour. But then it dawns on me...

I realise that the situation has probably heightened my senses to the subtleties of coffee - the fresh air and warm company. It's not necessarily the coffee itself. Much in the way a wine tasting workshop would focus my taste on the fruitiness of various wines, my palette is momentarily fine tuned to Kopi Luwak - no wonder it tastes so good.

It's tempting to try and hype Kopi Luwak, to describe it as a life changing experience. I now realise that if I didn't know of it's peculiar processing, and if I wasn't concentrating and willing it to provide the ultimate taste sensation, Kopi Luwak probably wouldn't even raise an eyebrow. Nether-the-less Ganesh pours me another cup which I gratefully accept.

Civet Cat Coffee (source)

The Unethical Blend
The BBC have recently carried out a special investigation into the animal welfare concerns associated with civet coffee, featuring World Society for the Protection of Animal (WSPA) wildlife expert Neil D’Cruze. The investigation reveals that, in parts of South East Asia, civets are cruelly captured from the wild, using methods that include box traps and snares. Many are sold directly to commercial civet farm owners, whilst others await their fate in noisy, bustling, wildlife markets.

Despite a long history of cage-free civet coffee – a method believed to produce the most superior tasting civet coffee – evidence suggests that the number of civet farms has increased to meet the growing global demand. A variety of different civet species are now being used to produce civet coffee, including the Binturong, which is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list (IUCN) and other species such as the Asian palm civet. It’s likely that farmed civet coffee production is contributing to the extinction of local populations.

What is WSPA doing?
- Urging retailers to source cage-free civet coffee and remove inhumane products from their shelves.
- Calling for the introduction of an accredited certification scheme as a standard for humane cage-free coffee.
- Calling on governments of civet-coffee-producing countries to take steps towards ending caged production.

What can you do?
- Find out more about the issue in The true cost of the world’s most expensive coffee.
- Read the BBC report.
- Don’t buy civet coffee unless you can guarantee it is from a 100% cage-free source.
- Learn more about civets by reading One minute to get up to speed on civets.
- Learn more about the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
- Find out how to be an animal-friendly traveller.