It has been said that the binturong is part bear, part cat, and has a monkey’s tail. Indeed, it does seem a bit like a composite animal, with parts gathered from here and there. But truly, it is in a class by itself — or at least, a genus all its very own. The binturong (Arctictis binturong) is a medium-sized mammal, also known as a bearcat, of the Viverridae family, which includes civets, linsangs and genets. Its nine subspecies are the sole occupants of the genus Arctictis.
While the binturong does have ancestral ties to the Felidae family, bearcats don’t possess any link to modern cat species (even though the animal has eight-inch-long white whiskers, sometimes purrs, and grooms its coat by licking and rubbing its face with its paws).
An arboreal animal, it spends much of its time in the tops of tall trees in lowland South and Southeast Asian rainforests and other woodlands. Game cameras have most often captured its image as it slinks along the ground, shifting from one tree to another.
Rare over its entire Asian range, the binturong is most common in Malaysian Borneo, a few states in Northeast India, Bangladesh, and on the Philippine Islands of Calauit and Palawan. Binturongs have also been spotted, although less frequently, in Nepal, South China, Java (Indonesia), and even less so in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
The binturong almost nobody knows
Binturongs are one of the largest animals in the Viverridae family. They can weigh up to 50 pounds, but most often weigh in at between 25 and 35 pounds.
They’re omnivores and opportunists, eating plant shoots and leaves, fruit, eggs, small invertebrates, fish, rodents — almost anything they can find and/or catch. In the wild, the bearcat enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the strangler fig, the fruit of which is one of its favorite foods. In captivity, the bearcat’s diet may include dog food and ground meat.
As already mentioned, the species’ appearance is truly unique. It is covered in coarse, shaggy black fur that can be tipped with gray over time. From its small ears protrude long ear hair tufts.
And it is notably one of the few mammals, outside of monkeys, to have a prehensile tail, which can act as a fifth limb to support it as it climbs to a treetop. That appendage also acts as a unique safety device, and is always wrapped around a branch when the animal is sleeping high above the ground. The bearcat even has a built-in rough patch on the tail tip for improved grip.
That versatile tail — thick and nearly the same length as the animal’s body — along with half-retractable claws, and the ability to rotate the front paws by 360 degrees, all combine to make a binturong an amazing climber.
Surprisingly, as agile as the bearcat is, it cannot jump from treetop to treetop with the greatest of ease, and so must climb down to the forest floor to change trees. Recently thought to be mostly nocturnal, new footage from camera traps shows a lot of activity during the day as well — when on the ground, the animals can walk erect in a slightly stilted manner like a bear.
A fierce creature
Lonnie Grassman, a member of the IUCN Small Carnivore Specialist Group and a resident scientist at Texas A&M University, specializes in wild cats, and has trapped more than 30 binturongs and radio-collared five to find out more about their habits — which, it turns out, include extreme aggressiveness.
“I’ve captured hundreds of animals and the binturong is the most fierce,” said Grassman in an admiring tone.
In her work, most traps were baited with live chickens, which the binturongs would devour, despite that strong preference for figs. Given the opportunity, binturongs clearly enjoy meat, the scientist noted, but they are not ideal predators, as they are less agile than jungle cats, especially when on the ground.
Also, unlike cats, who when released from a trap tend to run away, binturongs can be aggressive and chase nearby humans when released. They “are more scary than a leopard,” said Grassman about her trapping experiences with wild binturongs in Thailand. “They are looking to kill you.”
Which is perhaps why binturongs have no known natural predators — except for people. Being one of the last known carnivores to possess a prehensile tail, the animals are perfectly adapted for a dense forest environment that is fading away across Asia, as it is steadily encroached on by humans.
The binturong has been listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. While threatened in the wild, it has become a popular animal at zoos around the world. Photo by Keven Law licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
Sex in the trees amid the scent of buttered popcorn
Researchers believe that binturongs mate in trees, as a coupling has yet to be observed on the forest floor.
It is also believed that binturongs are one of maybe 100 mammals, according to biologists, capable of delayed implantation. This means that impregnated females can hold off on starting a pregnancy for more favorable environmental conditions, assuring that the birth takes place during a specific season, generally between January and March. Wild females typically birth one to three binturongs in a litter, while captive females can have up to six.
Baby binturongs — or binlets — have been observed practicing teat ownership (a decision by each baby to choose a certain teat and stick with it). If a young bearcat deviates from that rule, fights break out. The reason for the behavior isn’t known for certain, but the theory is that teat ownership is due to some teats producing milk with higher-fat content than others, making some more desirable.
One characteristic that may be a nod to the species’ Felidae past is the purring sound that females make to give males a heads-up that they are nearby and in the mood to mate. But that’s not the only way that binturongs, female or male, let their presence be known. A binturong has an anal gland, like its civet cousins, that secretes a pungent scent, which the species uses to mark its territory.
This “perfume gland” is located under the tail, so a binturong can press it to the ground or a tree branch, using it to paint the landscape with its scent. Oddly, to humans, the territorial secretions of a binturong smell exactly like hot buttered popcorn. It is one of the most identifiable characteristics of this small mammal for zoo-goers who have seen a binturong in captivity. And while civets also possess a perfume gland, no other animal is known to ever smell of buttered popcorn.
Where have all the binturongs gone?
Binturongs were listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List in 2008, with the species seeing a 30 percent population decline in the previous 18 years, or over three generations. That decline is mostly due to habitat loss, degradation and destruction, especially as logging and agribusiness rapidly reduce Asia’s forests.
Habitat loss has been especially extreme as lowland forests are converted to oil palm plantations in the portions of the Malay Peninsula occupied by Thailand and Myanmar, and on the islands of Java, Borneo and Sumatra.
While much of this deforestation is occurring on unprotected lands, the IUCN recently reported a disturbing trend, writing that “protected areas are not exempt from deforestation; 40 percent of the forest lost in Indonesia during 2000 – 2012 was lost in areas where logging is restricted.”
The binturong is doing especially poorly in its northern range, an area that includes parts of Vietnam, Laos and South China. There too, logging concessions and the expansion of agribusiness have had a serious impact. Add to that losses due to hunting and an active pet trade.
Currently, rampant hunting and trade in medium-sized mammals — a category binturongs fall into — is causing populations to approach national extinction in range countries such as Vietnam, Laos and China. (Binturongs are listed as Critically Endangered on China’s Red List of Endangered Species).
Binturongs are hunted throughout their range for a variety of reasons. In Laos, young binturongs are caged and sold live at markets as pets; their skins are also traded. The animals are sold for meat and considered a delicacy in Laos. In Vietnam, binturong meat is traded, along with other body parts used in traditional medicine.
In Indonesia, binturongs have been used along with the Common Palm civet, another Viverridae, to make “kopi luwak” (civet coffee) — an expensive drink produced by feeding the animals coffee beans, which they digest and defecate; the beans are then brewed into a kind of coffee. In fact, Indonesian “luwak farmers” have been known to raise captive binturongs for this purpose.
No major studies have been done to determine the degree to which bearcats are hunted for bushmeat, for Kopi luwak, traditional medicine or as pets, but a dead binturong was recently found along with the 40 frozen tiger cubs in the raid of the Tiger Temple in Thailand — an indication that A. binturong is valued by traffickers.
The exact number of binturongs still left in the wild is currently unknown because a life led mostly in the forest canopy is difficult to observe on a daily basis, with most sightings of the animals made via ground-based camera traps.
One piece of good news: while the species is threatened in the wild, it is fairly common in captivity. Binturongs are a popular zoo species. First generations are generally wild caught or obtained through the pet trade, while later generations are captive bred. Binturongs can be seen in zoos worldwide.
Important to forest ecology
While little is known about the part binturongs play in forest ecology, one key role they do play has been well studied — the bearcat is an important distributor of strangler fig seeds.
Binturongs enjoy gorging on the fruit when it is in season and defecate the seeds across the forest floor. That doesn’t only help with distribution, but is also a crucial step in the germination process, as the fruit can’t reproduce without the binturong’s assistance. A digestive enzyme in the binturong’s stomach softens the hard outer shell of the fig seeds, making it easier to digest, but also making it possible for the seeds to take root.
The loss of binturongs and their seed spreading services, scientists speculate, could create an imbalance in Southeast Asia’s rainforest ecosystems. But like so many Almost Famous animals, no one knows with any certainty what would happen ecologically if the species were to completely disappear from the wild.
What’s next for binturongs?
While many wildlife conservation groups acknowledge the serious population decline of binturongs throughout its range, it is difficult to find financial support to keep the species from harm.
With large-scale logging concessions and oil palm plantations ravaging Southeast Asia’s lowland rainforests, the bearcat’s habitat is fast vanishing. And they, like many other often undocumented small mammals and reptiles, are becoming the unsung victims of Asia’s deforestation.
Dr. Chris R. Shepherd, the Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia told Mongabay that the binturong is “one of the many species in Southeast Asia that is threatened by hunting and trade, but, [like many other animals], has fallen through the cracks as it is not a well known species, or a ‘flagship’ species.”
TRAFFIC occasionally finds young binturongs at Asian markets being sold for the pet trade, or adults being sold for their skin and meat, revealed Shepherd.
“Generally, local hunting and consumption is most likely a far greater threat than international trade, but again, this is a subject that definitely needs more attention,” and study, he said.
Unfortunately for the species, locals are mostly indifferent toward conserving current populations. Likewise — and as with so many other Almost Famous “orphan” species — few wildlife groups have stepped forward to adopt the binturong as one of the animals on which to tightly focus conservation efforts.
Clare Campbell, the director of Wildlife Asia, an NGO that does fieldwork in the rainforests where binturongs live, said that the organization supports the bearcat’s conservation, but doesn’t work directly to stop the trade or hunting. Though the NGO does seek to actively “protect Asia’s tropical forests and key landscapes which host the highest levels of biodiversity” — a conservation objective that includes forestlands where binturongs live.
“Sadly, few donors, and few conservation organizations, focus on these ’low-profile’ species,” said Shepherd. “Clearly, this is an approach that needs to change, as the bulk of the species threatened by the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade fall into this category.”
The IUCN assessment of the binturong’s current situation calls for “stricter enforcement of legislation against poaching, the wildlife trade, habitat degradation and deforestation.” But it doesn’t say who will do it.
Until binturongs are made a conservation priority, the research needed to understand their behaviors and their decline will be lacking, as will the knowledge needed to save them. Scientists, for example, do not presently know how habitat fragmentation or the degrading of forests is impacting the species’ ability to find mates and reproduce.
Conservation groups step up
Not all is lost however. ABConservation, a French NGO, has chosen the binturong as its mission, and its website declares that it “is the one and only association in the world that is entirely dedicated to the study and protection of the Arcticis binturong.” The organization is especially focused on making the binturong better known to the public through zoo programs, and by sponsoring an annual World Binturong Day. It also supports research in Asia.
The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has also placed a small spotlight on the threat to binturongs by offering an “Adopt a Binturong” donation kit that includes a stuffed bearcat, photo and adoption certificate.
Anthony Giordano, a longtime conservationist and executive director of the Society for the Conservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Study (S.P.E.C.I.E.S), is currently steering priority conservation strategies toward preserving binturong populations.
Giordano has studied binturong camera trap data from Sumatra and Borneo, and is working to find answers concerning the genetic diversity of secluded populations — such as on certain islands in the Philippines — and how exactly monocultures like oil palm plantations and other human encroachments are affecting binturong behavior and survival.
“They are a species priority for our organization,” he said. “Yet, we don’t know enough about them [yet] to figure out an ideal conservation scenario.”
Giordano pointed to several areas of study urgently required for binturong conservation: targeted studies with large populations are needed to better understand binturong ecology, he said. At the same time, scientists need to identify forests within the species’ range that can serve as conservation strongholds. Researchers also need to develop specialized methods of studying these creatures of the forest canopy that go beyond camera traps, so that everyday behaviors can be observed and analyzed.
In order to get a clearer picture of the binturong’s future, conservationists need to develop a clear picture of their present. “I’m going to do my best,” said Giordano.
This article was first published by Mongabay.com on 13 Oct 2016.