Setting the record straight on masked palm civets

The Guardian reports that the masked palm civet may be responsible for the Sars virus. When I first read this I wasn’t sure whether a masked palm civet was a tree, a kind of party or a herb used in south-east asian cooking. This of course does nothing for my feline credentials whatsoever, but now we know that it is, in fact, a cat, or a “small cat-like mammal” as the article puts it. It seems to me civets have had a bad press – it wasn’t they who were responsible for spreading the virus after all, but people who killed them and ate them – often illegally.

Anyway, I had a surprisingly difficult time finding much information about civets on the internet. The picture I found was deceptive, making me think someone had mistaken the poor creature for a badger. (But then, perhaps badgers are small cat-like mammals too?) The only decent snippet of information I found came from Tiscali’s reference site sourced from the Hutchinson Encyclopaedia. Even the estimable World Wildlife Fund had nothing on the story. However, I emailed them about the issue and received this response:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us for our view on recent claims that eating the masked palm civet could have caused the outbreak of SARS in China.

We do not believe enough scientific research has been carried out to support this claim and therefore we cannot comment on this issue.

You may be interested to know that although national laws may vary, international trade in the masked palm civet is strictly regulated.

International trade may be authorized by the granting an export permit or re-export certificate; no import permit is necessary. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.