Have you ever heard of the binturong?

Binturongs are classified on the IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species.

THIS question I have asked many a time in my school visits in Peninsular Malaysia and Bornean Malaysia, in Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand. The answer has been an emphatic ‘No!’ When I reworded the question and asked, ‘Have you seen a bearcat?’, several students said that they had heard of it and only a handful of students agreed that they had seen these mammals in a zoo. A bearcat is actually neither a bear nor a cat, for genetically cats can’t breed with bears.

Officially this animal is a binturong (Arctictis binturong). In 1882, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles wrote a vivid account of this animal from his visits to Melaka for the Linnean Society in London and thus it received its Linnean name meaning bear-weasel. Robert Shelford (former Sarawak Museum curator) in his posthumously published book in 1916, ‘A Naturalist in Borneo’, devotes nearly a page to this animal, describing its colourations, characteristics, movements using its prehensile tail and claws and its ability to descend from tall trees head first. Moreover, he recognised that it was from the civet family – Viverridae.

Maybe my two large, battered, leather-bound dictionaries, entitled ‘A Malay-English Dictionary’, now 86 years old, compiled by R J Wilkinson (a former Civil Servant in Peninsular Malaysia) and published in 1932, would provide the definitive answer to the origins and meaning of binturong? Interestingly these dictionaries were purchased in 1941, from a Kuching bookseller, HK Abdul Rahman and Bros at No. 39, India Street. Apparently binturong is derived from the Bahasa Indonesian ‘benturong’ meaning bearcat. Enough of my digressions!

Habitats

They have been observed in Nepal, India, all Southeast Asian countries and in Yunnan province, China. Living principally in tall primary rainforests and evergreen forests, many of their natural habitats have been removed through logging activities and the development of plantation agriculture but they have adapted to life in secondary lowland forests. Arboreal animals, they tend to be seen at their most active when feeding in the early morning and at dusk. But they are also nocturnal, sleeping by day on tree branches.

Description

Whilst they have a cat-like faces with slightly rounded ears and long stiff whiskers, it is their shaggy, stiff, black coats together with their exceedingly long prehensile tail that most distinguishes them. Fairly slow but sure-moving animals, they are able to twist their hind ankles around to ensure a firm grip when descending tree trunks head first.

They are well camouflaged against the background of their environment and thus it takes a sharp human eye to spot them amongst the branches where they sleep. Their reddish or black open eyes and slightly turned noses don’t miss a movement of their prey.

Body lengths and weight vary with females, being 20 per cent larger than males but, on average, binturongs’ body lengths are 76cm, with a tail length of 67cm, and a total bodily weight of 9 to 14kg. Both males and females possess scent glands in their posteriors. It is the smell of these glands that we humans may recognise.

‘Buttered popcorn’

Can we remember the crunching of popcorn in a cinema-auditorium, as treats we may have purchased from the foyer after getting our ticket, and the smell of such? This particular smell is emitted from binturongs’ anal glands and mixed with their urine is used to mark their territory or to attract mates. After urinating, they drag their tails and thus produce a scent trail on trees, branches and leaves.

In 2016, researchers at Duke University, USA, suggested that the smell from their glands is related to their diet and cooked by bacteria in their stomachs or by mixing with bacteria clinging to their skins, coats, feet and tails. The same aroma we smell when we toast bread and cook rice.

After a good meal, binturongs sprawl out on a high branch, firmly anchoring themselves by their tails.

Feed

Binturongs are omnivorous, with a penchant for smaller animals such as rodents, birds and their eggs and chicks, and even earthworms and insects but especially the fruit of the strangler fig tree. In captivity, in a zoo they eat a good diet which is mostly based on fruit and supplements. To gain food on the ground they have to descend the tree trunk.

Once they have devoured a good meal they sprawl out on a high branch, firmly anchoring themselves by their tails but enjoying the late morning and early afternoon heat in siestas.

Breeding

Generally, these animals are solitary creatures and mating can take place at any time of the year. Most interestingly, a female binturong can withhold implantation from a male and is thus able to time exactly when she wants her young to be born. She decides precisely when the best environmental conditions for food for her are available to suckle her young.

In the wild, she will give birth usually to two offspring but in captivity there may be up to six. The baby binturongs weigh in at between 150 to 300 grams with closed eyes, not unlike most other mammalian species. They hide within their mother’s fur for several days and only eat solid food as two-month-old babies. Rapid maturity is then afoot, for at two and a half years of age they are sexually mature. They can live up to 18 years in the wild and even longer in captivity.

Threats

Currently, binturongs are classified on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as a vulnerable species of animal. This is probably an overestimation of their total numbers. Over 20 years ago, I saw my first binturong in Sabah where, in the façade of a roadside vegetable shop, and led beyond, it was sleeping on an inner beam chained by a dog collar with a caged pangolin below. Now, upon hindsight, I should have purchased both animals and released them several kilometres down the road, back into their natural habitats in the rainforest.

Sadly, they are still illegally poached to enter the wildlife trade in many Southeast Asian countries and also hunted for meat for sale to Vietnam where they are considered a ‘delicacy’, in restaurants. Today, we can rejoice that Malaysia has declared the binturong a protected animal species. China has, to its great credit, listed the binturong as a critically endangered species.

Those kept in captivity, in national and state zoos may, perhaps, be seen for the long-term conservation of their species but can only be handled by experienced keepers. This so called cute-like pet animal in its earliest days, can snarl, become vicious, and flex its sharp claws in adulthood. Keeping a young binturong as a pet, when it may play with kittens, is a long-term licence for disaster.

This shy animal should be left in its natural environment. However, because that may change through logging and subsequent new land-uses, the binturong population may adapt to survive to changing circumstances – but, only with our help and protection.

In captivity, binturongs eat a good diet based mostly on fruit and supplements.

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