Newquay Zoo is leading international efforts to save a beautiful South East Asian mammal. The Cornish conservation charity is home to more Owston’s civets than any other collection in Europe, with 5. There are currently just 18 in zoos and sanctuaries globally - 11 in Europe and 7 in Vietnam. No one really knows how many there are in the wild.

This charismatic nocturnal small carnivore is native to Vietnam and the surrounding region. It’s listed as Endangered by conservationists as the population continues to decline in the wild.

Newquay Zoo Head Keeper Dave Rich: “This species is in desperate need. We were the last zoo to breed civets, and that was three years ago. In the UK, only Newquay Zoo, Shaldon Wildlife Trust in Devon and Port Lympne in Kent have them.

“There’s one breeding season each year - from around November / December to January / February here, although it is slightly earlier in Vietnam. We have been monitoring our animals to see if we can learn what does and doesn’t work for them.”

Former Newquay Zoo keeper Owen Taylor, now based at Paignton Zoo, is the studbook coordinator, responsible for compiling records on births, deaths and marriages (as it were) for the species, so knows the European zoo population better than anyone:

“We’re leading the way on trialling new management techniques, new husbandry methods and new diets, all to encourage breeding. We have one pair in a nocturnal house and one in a normal exhibit. We also have a research student with video cameras observing the animals. Very little is known about their life in the wild.”

With many cats and catlike species, separation helps stimulate mating. A deliberate change of smell to mask the male pheromones means that she then smells him afresh the next time. Newquay Zoo is currently home to two breeding pairs of civets, although breeding may not be quite the right word, as there hasn’t been much success in recent times. Owen: “We normally run the pairs together, but for the weeks leading up to breeding season they underwent trial separations on the grounds of “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”. We hoped this would jump-start mating when they got back together. It’s so important that they breed this year!”

The work is truly international. Former Paignton Zoo research student Frances Cabana, now based at Singapore Zoo, is looking into civet diets and nutrition. Owen: “We’re trialling insectivore pellets - not all of them are fans of these at present, though they should help improve nutrition.”

Newquay Zoo supports in-situ work carried out by the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme and Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Zoo staff regularly visiting Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam to offer expertise and to work alongside staff and volunteers at the rescue and rehabilitation centre.

Meanwhile, research student Isaac Wright, from the University of Nottingham, has been observing the animals throughout the breeding period: “Before the civets in the nocturnal house were separated in October, I observed that the two were quite sociable and would spend time together in both their nest box and on a specific platform in their enclosure. They didn’t appear to be overly aggressive towards each other.

“When the male was reintroduced in November, there was aggression for a few hours before they started being sociable again. Social behaviours observed included touching snouts, grooming one another, following one another, brushing up against each other and sleeping together. From December to late January, they showed a mix of aggressive and social behaviours.”

In late January mating behaviours started to decrease and the incidences of negative behaviour dropped. Isaac still has to analyse his data. “But anecdotally, I’d say the female became less active and was often the first to the nest box at the end of the day.”

All eyes now are on the five Owston’s civets, Con Trai, Quy, Dong Ha, Nam and Bao. Whether these efforts herald the patter of tiny paws, only time will tell. But no one is doing more to make sure this very special species survives.

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