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Civet musk, a precious perfume ingredient, is under threat. Steps to support Ethiopian producers and protect the animals

African civet. Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

The African civet — an animal closely related to the mongoose and widely distributed in sub-Saharan Africa — is among four mammals known to secrete scented compounds. Civets produce this “musk” to mark territory and communicate among themselves and other animals. It recently appeared in the news because when the UK’s King Charles III is crowned in 2023 he’ll be anointed with an oil which includes civet musk. This follows a long tradition. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, she was anointed with the same ointment.

Today, civet musk is highly prized in the perfume industry because its fragrance lasts a long time. And it has great socioeconomic and historical value, particularly in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has a long history of supplying civet musk to the perfume industry. It was also historically used as a diplomatic gift.

The musk, called “zibad” in Ethiopia, is a pale-yellow paste that has a distinctive smell ascribed to a compound called civetone. When it’s diluted, it produces a radiant, velvety, floral scent. One kilogram of civet musk can produce 3,000 litres of perfume.

Ethiopia is the world’s main supplier of civet musk, with 90% of the international export share. However, following important concerns raised by animal rights groups on the mistreatment of captive civets in Ethiopia, musk exportation is an underground industry. This makes it hard to track and trace the market size.

But the demand is there. It’s a popular and sought after ingredient and is used in some of the world’s most famous perfumes. In some parts of Ethiopia, civet musk is traditionally kept in a box alongside clothing, so that the clothes absorb the aroma.

However, the historical, economic and cultural value of civet musk is gradually losing ground in Ethiopia. This is because of poor husbandry practices, natural population declines and a tendency of perfumeries towards the use of synthetic fixatives. There are also serious welfare issues in the production of civet musk.

These issues can be resolved to the benefit of the industry and the animals. I’ve done various studies of the potential of the civet musk industry. The existing musk production covers only 22% of the international demand.

It’s a rare commodity and synthetic products can’t replace the natural musk. Ethiopia civet musk producers could benefit greatly if the industry were properly regulated and commercialised.

The African civet

The IUCN Red List assigns the African civet under the “least concern” category, which shows that its population is not under threat of extinction.

In Ethiopia, civets are found in the wild, then caught and kept in captivity. The musk is collected by squeezing a pair of perineal glands on the civet’s backside. Occasionally musk is collected from signpost where the civet made territorial markings.

Both male and female civets secrete musk. Males are generally preferred to females because they produce larger quantities and better quality civet musk. Because of this, female civets are rarely kept in captivity for musk production.

Civets typically produce 3g to 4g of musk a week, though it can go as high as 15g. Larger animals will produce more musk.

Challenges encountered

There are a few major challenges to the industry.

The management of captive civets and production of musk in Ethiopia is highly secretive and shrouded in superstition. For example, keepers believe that if captive civets are seen by people, they’ll produce less musk. Women are also less involved in handling captive civets.

Several serious welfare issues are associated with the production of civet musk. These include the trapping and transportation of wild civets, housing and caging, disease, hygiene and feeding. A significant proportion of newly captured civets die due to aggression because they are stressed by a habitat change.

There are also concerns about the impact of the industry on wild populations. Instead of captive breeding and farming, the civet musk industry in Ethiopia relies on wild populations. This can cause a localised decline in population. Though it’s not of concern yet, wild populations are also declining due to the loss and fragmentation of habitats.

Collecting civet musk from territorial signposts could affect the flow of communication among civets and other wild animals sharing their habitat. Female-biased sex structure could also arise in regions where male civets have been trapped.

A final challenge is that there’s a synthetic compound competing with civet musk on the market.

These factors make the civet musk industry a risky and declining business. There is virtually no financial support for it.

Areas of intervention

To manage the industry, and serious welfare issues, it’s imperative to establish an official civet farming centre. This will work on civet breeding and management practices and would help to improve management practices.

Civet farming is an ancient practice in Ethiopia. There’s a wealth of traditional knowledge which can be used to improve management practices.

Attention is needed to improve the animals’ welfare conditions and the quality of civet musk produced. In addition, there’s a need to document the traditional knowledge and customary laws operating in Ethiopia’s civet musk-producing regions.

There also needs to be more networking and awareness creation among smallholder farmers, middlemen and exporters.

Trapping and transport methods and the captive environment — including feeding, housing, caging, healthcare and musk extraction methods — must be improved.

It’s also important to move towards captive breeding and eventually domestication.

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