Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 29th, 2007
The Malabar civet (Viverra civettina) was last seen half a century ago in the forests of Kerela, India, and is presumed to be extinct. There is not even a photograph in existence. Hopes were raised in 1991, when a fresh skin was found. A Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) project is now looking for this elusive animal in its historically known areas of distribution in hope that a few are still lurking in the undergrowth waiting to be found.
Siddharth Rao, an Assistant Field Officer on the project recounts several months spent deep in the jungles of the Western Ghats looking for this civet. The following is his report from August 2007:
Being a wildlife biologist, I was always fascinated with the prospect of working in the Western Ghats and in June 2006 I got the opportunity to do just that. I had applied for a research project with the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and soon found myself studying on one of Indiaâs rarest animals, the Malabar Civet.
The study comprised of intensive search of the animal and interviews with local people – hunters, villagers and forest officials for fresh information on the animal. It was thought that Malabar civet had gone extinct in India some four decades ago; however, the discovery of a fresh skin from a villager in Kerala in 1991, raised fresh hopes that the animal might still exist in the remote parts of this region.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the species, since there had been no serious attempt in the past to study its ecology and distribution, till it went missing amid widespread hunting and habitat loss.
There are three other species of civets found in the country – the Common Palm Civet, the Brown Palm Civet and the Small Indian Civet, however, their status is not as threatened as the Malabar civet. The Malabar civet is listed as âCritically Endangeredâ in the Red Data book of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and is among the 15 most threatened mammals in the world today.
Southern India is home to all the four species of civets. The Malabar Civet is the only large civet among these species which can grow up to 8 Kgs in weight.
So why has this civet become so highly endangered and is it possible for us to do some thing before it is too late?
This desire to find out if the animal still exists in the wild encouraged me to take up the project, and since there is no photograph of a live Malabar Civet any where in the world, I should be the first to photograph the animal. The Malabar Civet Conservation Project is initiated by WTI in conjunction with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and is currently underway in the Malabar coasts covering states of Kerala and Karnataka.
Between June, July and August extensive interviews were conducted with the villagers and forest officials in the study area. Interestingly in Karnataka, over 95 per cent of people interviewed were not aware that such an animal existed, while in Kerala, 60 to 70 per cent of those interviewed are aware of the species.
Based on this local information, the next phase of the project was initiated in September 2006. Eight camera traps were placed in the selected sites, four in the Malabar and Travancore districts of Kerala, while other four in the Someshwara and Biligiriranganna Wildlife Sanctuaries (BRT) of Karnataka. These camera traps were placed along trails used by animals and in areas where villagers had reportedly sighted the Malabar Civet.
Over 1000 camera trap nights have already passed, yet the Malabar Civet still continues to elude us. We have documented a wide range of mammal species using camera traps such as the Small Indian Civet, the Brown Palm Civet, the Common Palm Civet, Tiger, Elephant, Jackal and Stripe Necked Mongoose.
One evening, while at the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, I placed one of the cameras on a large forest road not very far from a village. My field assistant warned me about keeping my cameras out near main roads for fear that they might get stolen. When I got that particular film roll developed I was pleasantly surprised to see a photograph of a black panther who had been walking down the same road. I later learnt that this photograph is one of the few images of a black panther taken in the wild.
Camera traps have been one of our major tools during the search for the animal. DNA analysis of scat samples collected from forest is another method we used for identification of the species. I spent a lot of my time deep inside the forests collecting scat samples. Walking through the forest tracks the entire day for samples and only stopping to drink from streams or a quick rest after lunch before heading back on the roads. However none of the scats collected proved to be from a Malabar civet.
As the monsoons approach, the camera traps need to be stored away. The torrential rains that blanket the Western Ghats (June to September) every year make camera trapping unviable. This time will be utilized to interact with local people to learn more about the presence of the Malabar Civet. October will see the start of new camera trapping efforts with more cameras and more locations. As the search for the Malabar Civet continues our understanding of the natural world would grow and our commitment to conserving wildlife.