The kopi luwak story began back in 1991 when former coffee trader Tony Wild brought a single kilogram of it into the UK and introduced it to the Western consumer as a novelty. Wild, currently a coffee consultant and author of Coffee: A Dark History, is now an outspoken critic of the kopi luwak trade.

While helping a BBC team investigate civet-coffee farms in Sumatra he witnessed widespread animal abuse and launched a petition and social-media campaign, ‘Kopi Luwak: Cut the Crap,’ urging customers and companies to shun the product. (The BBC documentary can be seen here.)

“When I introduced civet coffee to the UK it was a quirky novelty,” said Wild in a September 2013 article in the Guardian. “Now it’s overpriced, industrialised, cruel and frequently inauthentic.  For the most part, civet coffee is not harvested in the wild in limited quantities but mass produced by animals kept in appalling conditions.”

 

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The kopi luwak trade is a very lucrative one. The product attracts high rollers who don’t flinch at spending £6,500 at Harrods for a 24-carat-gold foil bag of Terra Nera.  For the past decade or so, kopi luwak has been a fashion statement for conspicuous consumers seeking novelty and prestige. In New York or London a cup of kopi luwak can go for over $50. The beans are currently selling on Amazon for $25 an ounce.

Why is it so expensive? The industry claims the high price tag of is justified because only about 500 kilograms is collected in the wild every year. Frankly, dear reader, that’s a load of luwak poop.

 

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There are some ethical suppliers but it’s much easier to capture/buy the civets, keep them in small cages and feed them almost nothing but coffee berries.   This practice started in Indonesia but other coffee producing companies were quick to follow. Wild estimates that the global production from Indonesia, India, Vietnam, China and the Philippines is at least 50 tonnes a year, possibly much more. One single Indonesian farm claims to produce 7,000 kg a year from 240 caged civets.

Teguh Pribadi, founder of the Indonesian Civet Coffee Association, admitted in an interview with TIME magazine that animal cruelty is rampant in the industry. “The luwaks aren’t treated well. Many farmers don’t understand how to keep the animals properly.” The association recommends the civets be kept in cages that are at least 2 m by 1.5 m wide and 2.5 m high, and for no longer than six months. But it’s more cost effective to keep the animals in smaller cages; when they die they are quickly replaced. “We tell farmers to focus on the quality, not the quantity of the product,” Teguh says. “It’s better if they produce little but superior coffee, and don’t have dying civets.”

 

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Genuine Indonesian kopi luwak is collected from the droppings of the common palm civet, Paraxorus Hermaphroditus. This shy, solitary forest animal wanders coffee plantations at night to eat the choicest ripe coffee cherries. The indigestible coffee bean is passed and the droppings collected by farm workers. “Being wild, hard to collect, variable in age and quality and very rare, kopi luwak is not a commercially viable crop, but just an interesting coffee curiosity,” says Wild. “That’s why I bought some. But nowadays, it is practically impossible to find genuine wild kopi luwak — the only way to guarantee that would be to actually follow a luwak around all night yourself, one experienced coffee trader told me.” An investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Asia found fraud to be rife in the kopi luwak industry, with producers labeling coffee from caged civets with a ‘wild sourced’ or similar label. A BBC investigation revealed similar findings. There is very little wild-sourced kopi luwak around these days. It makes much more financial sense to farm it, and there’s no way of checking.

I spoke with a European conservationist who’s helped in animal rescue centres in Bali, Java and Sulawesi. She has surveyed the palm civet or luwak in Java and Bali. “I saw them in forests in Java but not in the coffee plantations; they used to be common but now plantation owners buy anything they are able to catch and keep them caged to produce kopi luwak. In Bali she visited various so-called ‘eco-tourism’ centres which are often included in cycling tours and other tourist activities.

All of them had a few small cages of luwak which visitors are told are for display; the workers claim that most of the kopi luwak is collected in the wild. This is almost certainly untrue. When asked how long the civets are kept in captivity, the workers openly told her they are wild caught and not released.

 

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“The number of civets left in the wild is unknown because many are captured for the local pet trade or kopi luwak farms,” she told me. “They are not protected by law and there have been very few studies done.” The palm civet is listed by the International Union for Nature Conservation Red List (Least Concern) but as it is being heavily poached the status could move to Near Threatened or Vulnerable.

According to an officer from the TRAFFIC Conservation program, the trade in civets to make kopi luwak may constitute a significant threat to wild civet populations.   The common civet has a harvest quota system to be sold live as pets only, the kopi luwak trade is a loophole and so not technically illegal.

When on display workers often disturb the sleeping nocturnal animals to feed them coffee cherries for visitors to photograph. The natural diet of omnivorous luwak includes fruit, eggs, small lizards and nectar which suggests that they require a broad range of nutrients. Caged, they may also be given some papaya and banana but the bulk of the diet is coffee berries, so malnutrition is inevitable.

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Civets are the most-traded small animal in Java and Sumatra, appearing in many animal markets at prices ranging from Rp 300,000 to Rp 500,000 each. The animals nest in tree holes and the babies are often collected from the nest before they are weaned; the mortality rate is unknown.

“I know there is a big kopi luwak farm and coffee plantation in Lampung but I’ve never heard of or seen any large-scale kopi luwak farming on Bali,” Drh. I Gede Nyoman Bayu Wirayudha, founder and director of the Friends of the National Park Foundation. “Of course, keeping luwak in these conditions is not meeting animal welfare standards, especially since almost all of the luwak are wild caught.   If businesses are using them commercially they should set up captive breeding programs and domesticate them.”  Bayu told me that it made him very skeptical to see a place with one or two civets on display and which is selling a lot of kopi luwak. This suggests that in Bali some of what is being sold to tourists as local kopi luwak is ordinary robusta in a fancy bag. Again, there’s no way of checking.
So kopi luwak is a hot potato in Indonesia, setting animal welfare against farmers’ income. Some Indonesians defend the industry, saying that it provides a livelihood for the country’s poor (although, of course, it’s the middlemen who really profit). Ideally, producers would comply with humane treatment standards and begin to breed civets in captivity instead of taking them from the wild. Until then, if you’re craving a cup of kopi luwak, please do your homework and make sure it’s ethically sourced.

 

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PHOTOGRAPHER’S NOTE: A Day with the Luwaks

When he followed the tourist trail from Ubud to take photos to accompany Ibu Kat’s blog, this is what Rio Helmi found.

Along the roads to Kintamani from Ubud you will find several so-called “agro-tourism” farms specializing in Kopi Luwak. It is obviously the hottest thing to hit the Bali coffee industry. Intrigued by Cat Wheeler’s story, I went and visited some of these so-called farms.

For the most part they consisted of a little trail through a few coffee trees, then a couple of caged and miserable, or even hyperactive palm civets, the famous luwak. Some of the cages were a bit bigger than others, but the civets were far from happy. Many of them were fed a diet consisting of coffee beans only, whilst in reality coffee is just a small part of the carnivore palm civet’s diet.

After visiting a series of rather shady businesses, I finally found a farm up on the slopes of Kintamani in Landih where they have about 25 civet cats in an open air enclosure; I’m guessing, of some 40 ares (4000 square meters). The enclosure is filled with coffee plants, papaya trees, citrus and other edible fruit trees. The civets are also fed poultry to supplement their food, bringing theirs to a relatively normal diet.

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Though it was noon by the time I got there, and these nocturnal animals were curled up away in trees and bushes, they looked far healthier than the miserable inmates of the cages I had seen earlier on the tourist route.

 

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The assistant who showed me around, explained that this way of farming kopi luwak was clearly not as productive as force feeding palm civet cats in a small cage (which apparently can yield more than 2 kilos a day of droppings). It is obviously a lot more work for the farmhands as they had to go searching for droppings over a large overgrown area. Naturally it also drives the cost up astronomically. A kilo of this “real” stuff can go for up to 3 or 4 million Rupiahs.

However, not only was it far more ethical, he also explained that in cages the luwak tend to urinate on their droppings as well, causing it to smell so much that the collectors are forced to wash it almost immediately. Out here on the Bali Coffee Kintamani farm the droppings are not urinated on, so the workers can leave the droppings as they are longer. This allows the enzymes from the luwak’s digestive system to work on the coffee bean: the desired effect.

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Personally I’m not a fan of keeping wild animals in captivity, but at this farm in Landih the luwak are at least living in a somewhat natural habitat with loads of room to move around.

DSCF2573This is the brand Rio found which kept its luwak in far better conditions than any other farm he came across. They sell under two brands: JM and B36. Wayan Jamin, the owner and a native of Landih, told Rio “There is a lot of fraud around kopi luwak, and keeping the animals in cages is inhumane. We prefer to sell coffee that really does come from a plantation.”

 

His plantation can be found in Landih village, Bangli regency, not far from Kintamani.