Shaldon Wildlife Trust

Blog: Operation Save Our Civets – Bring in the Sexperts

Posted: 31st January, 2024

Veronica Cowl (EAZA, Chester Zoo) and Zak Showell (Shaldon Wildlife Trust) on Operation Save our Civets and breaking new ground in Owston's civet breeding:

What do you do when you have an endangered species that won’t breed? You’ve tried everything from swapping pairings around, adding things into their enclosure, building them new enclosures and even getting out the Barry White CD. You know they can breed though, the species has been kept in captivity for 20 years and initially bred relatively well.

Now add to this that this species is part of an EAZA breeding programme AND a conservation action plan where one of the goals is to breed to release. Now what do you do? You bring in the sexperts or more appropriately the EAZA Reproductive Management Group.

The species I’m talking about is Owston’s civet, Chrotogale owstoni, an endangered viverrid from Vietnam, Laos and Southern China that has been cared for by BIAZA zoos since the early 2000s. In the early days a few females produced multiple young every single year and the programme took off well but in recent years reproduction has stalled and with an aging small population the situation started to look precarious.

The question that kept coming back up was what had changed? Why in the early 2000s did they breed and now they don’t. We’d assume with improvements in diet, enclosure design and husbandry the species would be doing better than nearly 20 years ago but the lack of breeding indicated something still wasn’t right.

One of the benefits of having such a small number of holders is that communication is straightforward and easy. Rather than dealing with 30+ zoos with different email addresses a simple Whatsapp message can go straight to the 3 or 4 zoos with them. Working as a small group we reviewed diets, enclosures and the existing breeding pairs to see what could be changed. For the first time pairs that had been together for years with no breeding were split and we even tried rotating multiple males around multiple females during the breeding season. Success was however limited with 1 offspring born in 2019 and 1 in 2020.

Civet weight training

So what else were we missing? Pairs were living together with no issue, mating was being seen but no babies were being produced. Turning to the literature there was next to no information on civet breeding apart from what had been generated by the holders and our conservation partner, Save Vietnams Wildlife.

A chance meeting at EAZA 2018 in Athens saw the EAZA Contraceptive Group rebrand as the EAZA Reproductive Management Group and rather than dealing with just contraception they were going to tackle all manner of reproductive based problems and queries. As Dr Veronica Cowl walked off stage I approached her and said “I think you might be able to help us.” And the sexperts were involved!

To try and identify what isn’t going right, we first needed to understand what ‘normal’ is. Problem number one however, is that there’s very little information out there about any Asian civet, let alone this species. Based on breeding records, we thought that their breeding season lasts between January to March, although one pair always seemed to breed around May, and historic reports indicated that the breeding season could even extend to November. We also had no real idea about whether they needed a particular stimulus or behaviour to breed, or what healthy, breeding animals should look like clinically or hormonally.

One of the easiest ways to tackle these questions is by looking at poo – we can get tonnes of information from poo and they’re a ‘nice’, non-invasive way to collect this information. For the last six years, each zoo has diligently collected faecal samples– totalling over 6,500 samples! As with everything Owston’s civet related, sample collection isn’t simple. Civets typically defecate in water which contaminates the sample, and most of the animals were paired, which means that each zoo had to supplement individual diets with lentils, sweetcorn, or glitter so that we could identify which individual the sample came from.

Samples were brought to the Conservation Physiology and Reproduction lab at Chester Zoo, where we look at reproductive hormones to understand whether females are cycling, ovulating, and getting pregnant, and to understand what testosterone concentrations look like in males. Of course, each individual civet has completely unique hormone concentrations throughout the breeding season, so we had a lot of tinkering to do at this stage too. We’re still refining the process and the lab team loves to joke that I always bring in the most challenging species to work with!

So, what have we learnt? There is a defined breeding season which lasts from the end of January until late May. Females seem to be able to ovulate at least twice in a breeding season, giving us a couple of opportunities to breed from them each year, also explaining why some pairs breed later in the season. Only two of the females were ovulating and only one of these was conceiving; the other females all seemed to have little reproductive activity.

Looking at hormones only gets us so far - we knew that some animals were cycling, and others weren’t, but it didn’t tell us why. In 2022, together with Dr. Isabel Callealta from EcoLifes, Tullis Matson from Nature’s SAFE, and Dr. Christa van Wessem, the Owston’s civet vet advisor, we carried out full health and reproductive exams, including on-site semen evaluations and cryopreservation. We found no obvious indicators as to why they weren’t breeding – great because technically they’re all physically capable of breeding but this meant we still don’t have any obvious causes for breeding failure.

Armed with this information, we were ready to try the next step on the assisted reproduction ladder– using hormones to stimulate ovarian activity. We had some response, but it wasn’t what we would have expected had it fully worked. Nevertheless, we’ve started 2024 with renewed efforts; we’re retrying ovarian stimulation in all females and we’re pairing it with artificial insemination to see if we have more success using a double pronged attempt – the first of which will happen on Valentine’s Day.

All in all, a few people have put a lot of time, effort, and enthusiasm into making a difference with this species. Only having a few animals and a short breeding season has meant that this has been an uphill battle, but strong relationships and a willingness to try something new has meant that we’ve taken a real stab at preventing these guys from falling further down the IUCN Red List categories. Importantly, we can apply what we’ve learnt here to the population in Vietnam, which will soon house a purpose-built breeding centre.

Operation Save Our Civets continues, and we would be no where without the support of the experts like Dr Cowl. I suppose the tale of this story is that as an industry we are surrounded by experts, we have the skills on our doorstep to make a difference. No matter your zoo's size or budget we can have an impact of species survival.

- Veronica Cowl (Reproductive Biology Coordinator, Chester Zoo & EAZA Reproductive Management Group Programme Coordinator) & Zak Showell (Director, Shaldon Wildlife Trust)


All blogs reflect the views of their author and are not necessarily a reflection of BIAZA's positions. 

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