Claws And Curiosities: Unravelling The Mystery Of The Battle-Scarred Civet

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 2, February 2024

By Karmannye Chaudhary

In the heart of the formidable Shivalik mountain range, nestled amidst the undisturbed wilderness, lies a sanctuary that remains a hidden treasure to most – the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary in Chandigarh. It is a place that often beckons me with its untamed beauty, where hills, wetlands, grasslands and streams weave an intricate tapestry of life.

On a sunny morning in May 2023, I found myself drawn here again for the bi-annual bird survey. Hours slipped away as I immersed myself in the sanctuary’s avian biodiversity. Block officer Balwinder and I surveyed the transect known as ‘Neem Wala’; our observations encompassed a splendid array of avifauna, ranging from Black Storks to endangered Egyptian Vultures.

While visiting the hidden treasure that is the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary in Chandigarh to conduct a bird survey, the author was left in awe after sighting the Asian palm civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, usually known for its shyness and nocturnal habits, in the day. Photo: Karmannye Chaudhary.

As I wrapped up my survey transect and made my way back to the Nepli range forest hut, I crossed paths with Devender Chauhan, the Range Forest Officer. We engaged in a conversation about the sanctuary’s habitat management, discussing the delicate balance required to preserve this oasis in an urban area. Suddenly, a burst of vibrant red caught our attention as a Crimson Sunbird soared above us. We watched it for a while, and in the process, unknowingly strayed away from our base. As we retraced our steps downhill, we caught sight of a dark figure perched on a sacred fig tree Ficus religiosa, and stopped to observe it.

It was an Asian palm civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, an enigmatic creature known for its role in producing the world’s most expensive coffee beans. However, this civet seemed different from its usual nocturnal and shy behaviour. It stood just five metres away, observing us with its dark eyes. It bore the scars of past battles – a jagged cut on its right ear, blindness in one eye, and a massive scar on its right shoulder. It was as if this creature had faced the wild and survived its challenges. As we stood beneath the canopy of the enormous tree, the civet moved slowly along a thick branch, cautiously, as if aware that even one wrong step could be treacherous. Then, it turned to face us, and I noticed something intriguing. The civet began to sniff the air, flaring its nose up and down in our direction. It was only then that it seemed to realise our presence.

With newfound awareness, the civet changed its course, leaping gracefully from one tree to another, disappearing into the lush canopy above. We were left in awe, for civets are known for their shyness and nocturnal habits, making our daylight encounter a remarkable event. We managed to capture photographs of this battle-scarred civet, eager to share our discovery with the sanctuary’s forest staff.

The author’s search for the origin of some mysterious pugmarks led him to The Fauna of British India by R.I. Pocock, where he stumbled upon a diagram depicting the palm civet’s feet, which he soon found were partially webbed, with semi-retractable claws. Photo: Public Domain/R.I.Pocock.

Later that evening, Devender Chauhan sent me photographs of pugmarks collected by the rangers during their patrols. Most were unmistakably the prints of golden jackals, distinguished by their claw marks. However, one tiny, clawless print intrigued us. It was about the size of a pen cap, with five indistinct finger marks, which I assumed was created by double stepping by the animal. I speculated that it might belong to a rusty spotted cat, owing to its small size and lack of claw marks, although confirmation eluded us.

In the days that followed, my brother and I found ourselves at our farmhouse in Ropar, to the east of the same Shivalik range that cradled the sanctuary. There, we had established a waterhole, a lifeline for the local wildlife during parched summers. Eager to document the fauna that frequented our oasis, we set up a camera trap.

After the survey, the author and Range Forest Officer Devender Chauhan came across a Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja, which led to the discovery of the Asian palm civet. Photo: Karmannye Chaudhary.

Whose Pugmarks?

When we came to collect the camera trap, we saw an array of pugmarks around the waterhole. One of the pugmarks, which my brother pointed out to me, matched those that Chauhan had sent me earlier. We eagerly rushed to see what animal had left these prints. As we reviewed the footage, we witnessed a breathtaking display of wildlife – sambar deer gracefully crossing, wild pigs quenching their thirst, and peacocks engaged in playful pursuits. However, what truly left us astounded was the revelation of the source of those mysterious pugmarks. The tiny, clawless tracks, which had puzzled us, belonged to none other than the Asian palm civet, the same species as the battle-scarred creature we had encountered at Sukhna! It was a thrilling connection between the cryptic pugmark and the civet’s presence.

As I mulled over the peculiar pugmark we had encountered, confusion gnawed at my mind. Civets, unlike their feline counterparts, were known for extending their claws, particularly when navigating trees. It was a conundrum that begged for an explanation. I started scouring the internet for any photos or references to civet pugmarks, hoping to find some clarity. However, my search yielded no results, leaving me even more perplexed. The diagrams I came across displayed claw marks in civet footprints, further deepening the mystery. My curiosity was now intertwined with a growing sense of intrigue and determination.

In May 2023 during the bi-annual bird survey on the ‘Neem Wala’ transect, the author came across a splendid array of avifauna, ranging from Black Storks Ciconia nigra to endangered Egyptian Vultures Neophron percnopterus. Photo: Karmannye Chaudhary.

Driven by this insatiable curiosity, we hatched a plan to revisit the sanctuary, returning to the spot where we had encountered the battle-scarred civet. Perhaps, we thought, we might find fresh footprints that would reveal more about this enigmatic creature. Upon our return, our expectations were met with silence – there were no fresh footprints to be found. But when we were about to leave, as if orchestrated by the hand of fate, there it was – the same civet, returning to us, a living enigma in the wilderness. We wasted no time, instinctively reaching for our recording equipment. I focused my camera on the underside of its feet as it moved gracefully across the branches. Its claws were undeniably out, gripping the bark as it descended toward our level.

It was as though this civet was putting on a performance just for us. I marvelled at the distinctive padding of its feet, still puzzled by the absence of claw marks in the pugmarks we had found earlier. We also noticed that the tree above us bore fruit, resembling small figs, part of the civet’s primary diet. It struck us that this withered old civet had sought refuge in this sacred fig tree for months, its blindness making it particularly vulnerable to the dangers of the wild.

Aerial view of the City Forest Pondage, technically part of the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary in Chandigarh. The sanctuary is a hidden gem in the Shivalik hills, near the city’s Sukhna lake. Photo: Karmannye Chaudhary.

Solving The Mystery

Back home, I meticulously examined the photographs, comparing them to different references. My search led me to The Fauna of British India by R.I. Pocock, where I stumbled upon a diagram depicting the front and hind feet of the palm civet. It revealed a unique webbed pattern, almost as if an extra finger was fused in with each other.

In the evening, I shared my perplexing findings with my friend, Narbir. He delved into his own research and unearthed a source that shed light on the civet’s claws – they were semi-retractable! The civet’s claws were not fully withdrawn as in felines, and its third and fourth toes were partially fused. This adaptation makes them extraordinary climbers and proficient hunters.

Pugmarks of the Asian palm civet. The civet leaves small, five-toed pugmarks with its semi-webbed feet. Photo: Sukhna WLS Forest Staff.

Through meticulous observation and tireless investigation, we finally pieced together the puzzle. The pugmarks we had found were unique to the civet’s semi-retractable claws. Even though illustrations often depicted claw marks owing to their formidable claws, they walked on their palms and partially retracted their claws while walking on the ground, leaving behind an intriguing and distinctive pugmark. This revelation marked a pivotal moment in our journey to understand the curious case of the civet, shedding light on the intricacies of this remarkable creature’s adaptations and behaviour in the wild.

The Asian palm civet is a mammal of the Viverridae family, native to south and southeast Asia. Designated as Least Concern by the IUCN, it still faces the threats of poaching and illegal wildlife trade on account of the increasing popularity of  kopi luwak or civet coffee. Photo: Public Domain/David Raju.

With our observations and research, we unravelled the mystery of the Asian palm civet’s tracks, leading to a satisfying conclusion. Though we never crossed paths with the scarred civet again, we suspected it might return when the fig tree bears fruit once more, a silent promise of nature’s resilience and the enduring beauty of the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary.

Karmannye Chaudhary All of 19 and based in Chandigarh, he is a biology student at the Queen Mary University in London. An avid birdwatcher and photographer, he enjoys documenting wildlife behaviour and visiting wildernesses.


join the conversation