Habitat destruction caused by large-scale encroachments force palm civets, an endangered species, to move into towns and areas inhabited by human beings.

Kozhikodes palm civets give Priyanka Gandhi a scare but it points to an ecological crisisCommon Palm Civet/Bernard DUPONT/WikimediaCommons/CC BY SA 2.0
news Environment Sunday, April 07, 2019 - 19:16

Having migrated to the city a long time ago, a few tiny creatures have occupied the attic of the Government Guest House at West Hill in the suburbs of Kozhikode only to give sleepless nights to the visiting VVIPS, who voluntarily prefer the moderate accommodation over the five-star facilities in other parts of the city. Asian Palm Civets, tree dog or marappatti for most Malayalees, are known for their ability to fight in attics, especially during nights, mainly over territory.

And the last VVIP to witness the high-pitched snarls of their rage was All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi, who accompanied her brother and Party President Rahul Gandhi to Wayanad last week to file his nomination in the Lok Sabha election. News reports said that Priyanka Gandhi had a sleepless night at the guest house because of a civet fight in the attic. They kept running across the attic for a few hours, giving Priyanka a tough time.

On April 4, Priyanka Gandhi had reached the guest house along with Rahul around 10.30 pm. She reportedly went to bed by 11.30 pm after holding discussions with her party colleagues. However, Priyanka woke up around 2.30 am due to some disturbing noises from the attic. Frightened by the noise, she called the security personnel immediately. The security personnel found two palm civets running across the attic, thus producing the noise. Other than the noise, what irritated Priyanka was the foul smell the animals produced.

The civets perhaps migrated to the urban locality from the nearest forest surroundings.

On their part, the police constables on security duty tried to get rid of the palm civets, but in vain. The SPG (Special Protection Group) was then summoned, which then took efforts to shift her to a nearby five-star hotel. The special branch of the Kerala police was directed to arrange all facilities, including the convoy to shift her to the hotel.

Amidst all these mayhem, the animals had taken a retreat and moved out of the attic. Priyanka then decided to stay at the guest house for the rest of the night.

Are palm civets a threat to human beings?

A mammal resembling a cat, palm civet is an endangered species. I felt on many occasions that it was a cross between a wild cat and a mongoose.

Hailing from Rahul’s second constituency Wayanad, having palm civets in the attic has always been my childhood nightmare. They often create a feeling, especially for visitors from outside, that the place is haunted. The territorial fights erupt only late nights when people are in deep sleep. The sound of feet scurrying across the ceiling would definitely startle you out of sleep.

For zoologists, they are small harmless mammals that lost their ways outside fragmented forests. After accidentally landing in the urban residential areas, they scurry around in search of new homes, thus inviting human fear. It was only last year that a palm civet reached the library building of Indian Parliament in New Delhi.

Wildlife experts say the animal is completely harmless and largely nocturnal with an omnivorous diet, feeding on fruits and sometimes scavenging. Belonging to the Viverridae family, these arboreal creatures (tree climbers) migrate into residential areas due to habitat loss, often finding shelter in air conditioner ducts, attics and false ceilings.

City dwellers can say that the civets have encroached into their space. And if civets could speak, they would say the same about city dwellers.

In Wayanad, they symbolise a larger issue that requires the immediate attention of Rahul Gandhi and other leaders. Habitat destruction caused by large-scale encroachments is forcing the wild animals to move into towns and areas inhabited by human beings, thus causing large scale human-wildlife conflicts. Tigers and elephants often invite public wrath largely because of no fault of their own – their traditional migratory paths and corridors are either troubled or fully destroyed.

In the interiors of Wayanad, there are instances of civets being beaten to death by sticks and poisoned. To many people, civets are a nuisance as they raid places, mainly for food.

Folklore is full of stories of these animals, dubbing them as ‘human baby snatchers’. A palm civet weighs only up to 3.5 kg, thus putting the credibility of such stories in question. For many, they are a bad omen.

Urban civets must not be treated as a law and order problem. They are, in fact, symptoms of a larger disease. The forests need better conservation and the biospheres must be protected from encroachments. Better forest management is the lasting solution to the civet menace, as capturing and releasing them in faraway forests would ensure only temporary relief. In such instances, civets will have no choice other than looking for urban attics.

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