Owston's Banded Palm Civets (Chrotogale owstoni): Ringtails of China, Laos, and Vietnam

by DerdriuMarriner

Synthetic substitutes decrease civet musk demand. Severe acute respiratory syndrome ends the civet pet trade. Habitat loss and snare traps now threaten Owston’s banded palm civets.

All female and male civets are known for musk.
• The secretion communicates information about forage routes, mating sites, and territorial tracts.
• It contributes fragrant stabilizers to perfumes.
• Historically, it either decimates civet populations through slaughtering for the glands or disfigures individual civets through scraping for the secretions.

The modern invention of synthetic substitutes emerges to prevent individual suffering and reverse mortality rates.

But the life expectancies which use of alternate ingredients increases for Africa’s and Asia’s civets find themselves challenged by:
• Globally-warmed climate change;
• Habitat loss;
• Pet trappers;
• Ritual hunting.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome joins the above-mentioned threats to Asian population sustainability. Its impact will challenge any assessment regarding Owston’s extra-wary, night-loving, super-fast, ultra-reclusive banded palm civets.

Owston's palm civet

Rare Species Conservation Centre, Sandwich, Kent, South-East England
Rare Species Conservation Centre, Sandwich, Kent, South-East England


Civets are native to Africa and Asia. Their strong-smelling, yellow-colored musk endears them to perfume-lovers worldwide. Their English, French (civette), and Italian (zibetto) names indeed find their oldest known origins in the Arabic trader word زباد (zábād, “foam, froth, spume”) preserved by Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Mas’udi (896? – September 956?), as:

  • Direct descendant of Abdullah ibn Masud (died 652?), early disciple of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (570? – June 6, 632);
  • Islamic geo-historian;
  • Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin al-jawahir ("The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems") world history writer.

Non-European names may emphasize other attributes. For example, the Vietnamese designation cầy vằn bắc for Owston’s banded palm civets recognizes:

  • Corporeal stripes;
  • Dog/fox-like looks;
  • Northern bio-geography.


Banded palm civet (Hemigalus derbyanus): close resemblance exists between banded palm civets and Owston's banded palm civets (Chrotogale owstoni).

Differences between the two civets are nuanced: spotted legs of C. owstoni vs. unspotted legs of H. derbyanus; neck hair grows in reverse (upward) on H. derbyanus vs. downward growth on Owston's civets.
Cincinnati Zoo
Cincinnati Zoo


Formal presentation of Owston’s banded palm civets to scientists outside Africa dates to 1912. It describes a young male specimen from Yên Bái, on the Gulf of Tonkin-exiting Sông Cái. It showcases the excellent abilities and extraordinary intelligence of Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas (February 21, 1858 – June 16, 1929), as:

  • Pupil at Haileybury College, site of the United Kingdom’s largest academic quadrangle and successor to the East India College for Honourable East India Company administrators;
  • Specimen collector at Table Mountain, Cape Colony Archdiocese;
  • Specimen collector throughout western Europe and South America with his beloved wife Mary Kane Clark;
  • Taxonomist of 2,000+ species and subspecies;
  • Writer of 1,000+ books, catalogues, and documents;
  • Zoologist at London’s Natural History Museum.


extraordinary British zoologist Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas:

portrait bequeathed by Oldfield Thomas to London's Natural History Museum
oil on canvas by John Ernest Breun (1862-1921)
oil on canvas by John Ernest Breun (1862-1921)


Common, trivial, or vernacular names generally accede to popular customs and traditional use. Binomial (“two-name”), Latin, scientific, or taxonomic names typically acknowledge scientific consensus. The two nomenclatures can differ or overlap. For Owston’s civets (Chrotogale owstoni), they diverge in language and through omission. The common and the species names honor Alan Owston (August 7, 1853 – November 30, 1915), as:

  • Pirbright, Surrey-born amateur naturalist;
  • Yokohama, Japan-based merchant, specimen collector, and yachtsman;
  • Yunnan, China-oriented expeditions sponsor.

The holotype (species standard) specimen indeed is among the National History Museum holdings because of Owston expedition collector Orii’s retrieving the sample on September 16, 1911. But its taxonomic classification omits the facts that Owston’s civets have semi-striped tails and prefer palm trees.



China, Laos, and Vietnam are the homelands of Owston’s banded palm civets. The distributional range concentrates most on central and northern Vietnam’s:

  • Fansipan Mountains;
  • Hoàng Liên Sơn Mountain Range;
  • Limestone highlands;
  • Pù Mát National Park in the northern Annamite Range;
  • Quảng Nam Province in the central Annamites;
  • Sông Đà (Black River).

No populations apparently extend west of the Mekong River even though two specimens grace Cambodia’s Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center taxidermy collection. But the distributional ranges fork from their Vietnamese center. They go northward into southern China’s Guangxi and Yunnan Provinces. They head northwestward into the Laotian border provinces of:

  • Attapeu;
  • Bolikkhamsai;
  • Hua Phan;
  • Khammouane;
  • Luang Prabang;
  • Phongsali;
  • Salvan, Savannakhet, Sekong;
  • Xieng Khouang.


Part of the Western Nghệ An Biosphere reserve, Pù Mát National Park (Vườn quốc gia Pù Mát) is home for Owston's banded palm civets.

Nghệ An Province, in Vietnam's North Central Coast region
Nghệ An Province, in Vietnam's North Central Coast region


Specific habitats within southeast Asia appeal to Owston’s banded palm civets. The obligate watchwords are water, woods, and worms. The life cycles and natural histories of Owston’s banded palm civets indeed demand access to humidity and moisture through proximity to:

  • Lakes;
  • Lowland river basins;
  • Streams.

They depend upon the natural, simple dens which offer themselves:

  • Amidst thick brush and vines;
  • Within ground burrows, rocky crevices, and tree hollows.

Owston’s banded palm genets therefore flourish in:

  • Bamboo forests;
  • Broadleaf forests over limestone geology;
  • Evergreen montane forests;
  • Wooded lowlands.

But at the same time, they make allowances for agro-industrial expansion and population growth by tolerating:

  • Forest edges;
  • Heavily degraded forests.


Sông Đà (Black River): Owston's banded palm civet's ecosystem

view from  from Hang Tôm bridge near Mường Lay town, Điện Biên province, northwestern Vietnam
view from from Hang Tôm bridge near Mường Lay town, Điện Biên province, northwestern Vietnam


Water-blessed woods are worm-filled homelands. Worms claim more than 50% of the nightly diet of Owston’s banded palm civets. Forages from dusk to early morning cover:

  • Ground-level surfaces for earthworms;
  • Trees for seasonal fruits and small invertebrates.  

Owston’s banded palm civets do not pursue vertebrates even though in captivity and domestication they readily accept:

  • Bananas;
  • Beef;
  • Chicken.

Their dentition in fact falls more in line with insectivorousness (“insect-eating”) than with carnivorousness (“meat-eating”). It involves broad, close-set incisors whose semi-circular arrangement is rare among carnivores and reminiscent of kangaroos. It joins with cranial features, extensive spotting, and neck-hair growth to distinguish Owston’s banded palm civets from otherwise super-similar banded palm civets (Hemigalus derbyanus).


Chrotogale owstoni ~ A: side view of skull; B: front view of muzzle

Oldfield Thomas, "Two New Genera and a New Species of Viverrine Carnivora (1912), p. 502, fig. 63
Oldfield Thomas, "Two New Genera and a New Species of Viverrine Carnivora (1912), p. 502, fig. 63


Owston's banded palm civets begin life in litters:

  • Bred yearly, November/January to March;

  • Delivered after 2 – 2-1/2 months;

  • Yielding 1+ offspring, each weighing 0.17 – 0.19 ounces (75 – 88 grams).

Physical and sexual maturity confers:

  • Black-and-white longitudinal forehead lines;

  • 4 shoulders-to-rump and 2 tail-base transverse bands;

  • Head-and-body lengths of 22.05 – 28.35 inches (560 – 720 millimeters);

  • Orange-buff under-sides;

  • Spotted flanks, limbs, and neck;

  • Tail lengths of 14.96 – 18.5 inches (350 – 470 millimeters);

  • Tawny-grey upper-sides;

  • Weights of 5.51 – 8.82 pounds (2.5 – 4 kilograms).


Five-year life expectancies increase with:

  • Government protected homelands (10 in Vietnam, 3 in China, 2 in Laos);

  • Scientific research.   


disruption of Owston's banded palm civet habitats by mining: Rare earth elements such as erbium are being mined in Vietnam

erbium, a lanthanoid
erbium, a lanthanoid

Conclusion: A vulnerable civet struggles to survive in 21st century Southeast and East Asia


Survival is a daily battle for Owston's banded palm civets (Chrotogale owstoni), despite homelands in protected areas, such as in northern and central Vietnam.

Habitat degradation and loss constitute the greatest threats to continuity as a species for Owston's banded palm civets.

Mining poses serious threats as rare earth elements are found in Vietnam. The encroachment of mining enterprises upon hithertofore undeveloped landscapes raises the standard concerns of development vs. biodiversity.

Equally menacing to the vulnerable Owston's civet's survival is intensive snare-hunting throughout their range. As ground-dwellers, Owston's banded palm civets run exhaustingly dangerous gauntlets, peppered with snares, in their daily foragings.

Hunters cater to an insatiable market for bushmeat, living trophies, pelts, and traditional medicine.

While reclusiveness generally serves as a strength for the world's fauna, Owston's banded palm civets are faced with devising strategies beyond seclusion, for their habitats are booby-trapped with snares.


Shaldon Zoo Owston's palm civets ~ village of Shaldon, South Devon, South West England

Uploaded to YouTube on November 9, 2010 by ShaldonZoo ~ URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnwXPqqSYT4

Owston's civet (Chrotogale owstoni): from painting by Walter Alois Weber (May 23, 1906 - January 10, 1979)

Vol. XVIII, Plate XI, opp. p. 220
Vol. XVIII, Plate XI, opp. p. 220



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


Owston's banded palm civet shares homeland in Pù Mát National Park with the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of world's rarest mammals discovered 2 decades ago in 1993.

Saolas are found only in the Annamite Range of Vietnam and Laos
Saolas are found only in the Annamite Range of Vietnam and Laos

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mountainous homeland of Owston's banded palm civet (Chrotogale owstoni): Hoàng Liên National Park (Vườn quốc gia Hoàng Liên) ~

viewed from Trạm Tôn Pass, Vietnam's highest mountain pass, at 6233.6 feet (1900 meters)
Lào Cai Province (Tỉnh Lào Cai) and Lai Châu Province (Tỉnh Lai Châu), northwestern Viet Nam
Lào Cai Province (Tỉnh Lào Cai) and Lai Châu Province (Tỉnh Lai Châu), northwestern Viet Nam
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

ZooBorns by Chris Eastland and Andrew Bleiman ~ Owston's banded palm civets are covered on pages 82-83! ~

From aardvarks to zebras, ZooBorns showcases the newest and cutest animal babies from accredited zoos and aquariums around the world.
Owston's banded palm civets in books

Banded Palm Civet, Malaysia: photo by Gavriel Jecan

Owston's banded palm civet closely resembles banded palm civet (Hemigalus derbyanus), with a few striking nuanced differences, such as spotted legs for Owston's vs. unspotted for H. derbyanus and direction of hair growth on neck (upward for H. derbyanus).
Banded Palm Civet, Malaysia

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 10/18/2014, DerdriuMarriner
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


DerdriuMarriner on 07/30/2014

ologsinquito, Me, too, I agree that their range is scenic. I'm glad that you appreciated the photos -- I feel that seeing the landscapes in which species thrive increases understanding and rapport.

ologsinquito on 07/28/2014

These cute little animals certainly have a scenic range. The photos you chose are beautiful.

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