“The Malabar Civet may not even exist,” Divya Mudappa said softly, watching my face for a reaction. She didn’t mean that the creature had become extinct; she meant that such a species may have never existed. That’s an audacious statement to make but there are enough reasons to suspect that she might be right.
The Malabar Civet became known to science on the basis of a skin and a partly damaged skull donated by Lord Arthur Hay to the Asiatic Society of Bengal (ASB), Kolkata in 1845. The specimen tags say it came from South Malabar, Kerala, India, but whether the animal was captive or wild, hunted or traded and the exact location went unrecorded.
In 1874, Thomas Jerdon, a well-known figure in Indian natural history, writes that the Malabar Civet was very common and he had seen them on numerous occasions. He felt that the species ranged across the lowland coastal forests from Honavar in north Karnataka to Travancore (south Kerala) and perhaps even to Sri Lanka. This account formed the basis of all subsequent descriptions, range and status of the species by doyens such as Robert Sterndale (1884), William Blanford (1888), William Sclater (1891) and other naturalists until 2003. None of them ever saw the animal alive. In 1933 Pocock pointed out in his review of the species that Jerdon had probably mistaken the Small Indian Civet for the Malabar Civet! But by then, the latter was firmly established in the annals of Indian fauna.
Reginald Pocock, the famous mammalogist (1933), then suggested that the unique characters that set the Malabar Civet apart may be an artifact of captivity, but was nonetheless concerned by the rarity of the species.
In 1949, Angus Hutton reported seeing several Malabar Civets in the High Wavy Mountains, Tamil Nadu, where he was a tea planter. While he described these large civets to be fairly common in the evergreen forests, he had only seen one Small Indian Civet. The son of a civetone dealer based in Valparai, Hutton doesn’t mention how he distinguished the two species, but it is very likely that he misidentified the common Small Indian Civet as Jerdon had before him. What he called a Malabar Civet in a photograph was identified as a Small Indian Civet.
The first tangible evidence of the mysterious Malabar Civet popped up in 1987 when G.U. Kurup of the Zoological Survey of India, Kozhikode salvaged a skin from Elayur, about 25 km from his office. Another skin from the same source was lodged at the Calicut University museum while a third went missing. These skins apparently came from animals caught while a cashew plantation was being converted to rubber. Whether this was first hand information or hearsay is unknown.
A few years later, N.V.K. Ashraf procured an old stuffed specimen (the third one that went missing from Elayur in 1987?) and a fairly fresh skin from a tribal settlement in Poongode, about 15 km from Elayur. Both these specimens were given to the museum at the Wildlife Institute of India where they became decrepit and were subsequently dumped.
The Wildlife Trust of India conducted extensive camera trap surveys in the lowland forests of Karnataka and Kerala between 2006 and 2008 and found no sign of the animal. Concern for the civet grew.
Around this time, two specialists in nocturnal small mammals, R. Nandini and Divya Mudappa began reviewing all accounts of the species and examining museum specimens. They discovered that the little known information was based on Jerdon’s originally erroneous identification and the rest on surmise. This was the point at which Divya wondered if the species existed at all.
Then how does she account for the various skins found in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I asked. Civetone, the musk produced by the anal glands of civet cats, was much sought after for perfumery, religious offerings and ayurvedic medicine over the millennia. In ancient times there was a thriving trade in large civet cats from Ethiopia and Southeast Asia. Kozhikode, in Kerala, was a major sea port and Kerala also appears to be the origin of all six museum specimens.
Civets in the trade were the African Civet, the Large-spotted Civet from Southeast Asia and the northern Large Indian Civet. The “Malabar Civet” skins bear an astonishing resemblance to the Large-spotted Civet, enough to confuse even seasoned biologists. It’s possible that some escaped captive Large-spotted Civets ended up in collections or they thrived in a small pocket, somewhere near Kozhikode.
This line of argument is sure to raise the hackles of some biologists. But consider this: if the animal was as common as reported in early literature, then why are only a few skins available in museums? It is possible that the Malabar Civet may be remarkably sensitive to habitat change, and hunting pressures. But civet cats in general are adaptable creatures that live on a varied diet. Misled by Jerdon, biologists have perhaps been looking for it in the wrong places. The lack of authentic information makes it difficult to get to the bottom of this conundrum.
So if you are out in the southern forests and see a large civet, these are the characters to look for: a black mane along the back from the nape to the tip of the tail, three dark stripes on the throat, the lack of a dark patch below the eye, and a broad, black tail tip. Even a bad picture would be better than no picture at all!