The two rather large civet cats were crunching up chicken bones, leftovers of the forest guards' dinner that had been thrown into the elephant trench surrounding the building. To us, the animals seemed much bigger than the common Small Indian Civet, and every now and then, they stood on their hind legs to get a better perspective of our invasive lights. We all had the same thought: Malabar Civet! We made no move to get a camera for fear that they would run away. Instead, we tried to memorise the civet cats' features in the dark.

Almost six decades earlier, Angus Hutton, a tea planter in the adjoining High Wavy Mountains tea estate, had recorded that the Malabar Civet was ‘very common', but there is a strong suspicion that he had misidentified the Small Indian Civet. By 1939, it was feared that the Malabar Civet was becoming rare and close to extinction. Excitedly we wrote in the register that we had seen a pair of Malabar Civets, the most elusive Indian mammal.

But Ajith Kumar of Centre for Wildlife Studies (whose logo is a Malabar Civet) doubted that we had seen it. He suggested that the little civet is so widespread across so many different habitats, altitudes and latitudes that there was tremendous variation in features, pattern and size.

One biologist asked if the civets we had seen had a mane, but we hadn't noticed. Three stripes along the throat? We thought we saw something like that. Another asked if we noticed whether the bands completely encircled the tail. Don't know, it was too dark. Did they have black tail tips? Huh? Unfortunately, we hadn't known these were the features to look for.

Last week, R. Nandini and Divya Mudappa, two experts on small mammals, published an account of their investigations on the Malabar Civet. They examined six skins and three skulls held in various museums in the U.K. and India, and pored over everything ever written by wildlife experts 1800s onwards.

The Malabar Civet was reportedly found in the lowland coastal forests of the Western Ghats from Karwar (northern Karnataka) to Trivandrum.

There had been a few sightings far inland in Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, Tirunelveli, and in the hills of the High Wavys. But, most of the sightings were around Kozhikode. No other civet cat in Asia is so narrowly restricted in range.

Nandini and Divya agreed with the possibility that the Malabar Civet may have become extremely rare from being hunted for its famous musk. But, could they really be so finicky that they couldn't tolerate the conversion of their forests to plantations when other civets thrived?

There was no real clarity on what a Malabar Civet looks like, the origin of the museum specimens were obscure, and their identity uncertain as mammalogists contradicted each other. To confuse matters further, the Large-spotted Civet of Southeast Asia and the Malabar Civet look almost identical. This suggested an alternate conclusion that is truly revolutionary: the Malabar Civet may never have existed!

Over millennia, civet cats were traded among Ethiopia, Southeast Asia and India for civetone, a secretion of the anal musk glands used in traditional medicine, perfumery and as a religious offering.

Even today, Small Indian Civets are maintained on farms in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, for the extraction of musk. Kozhikode, the centre of most recent Malabar Civet sightings, was a well-known trading port since ancient times. Nandini and Divya wondered if there was a possibility that Large-spotted Civets brought from Southeast Asia escaped from captivity, leading to occasional sightings in the wild.

This is not so farfetched, as captive Small Indian Civets have escaped and established themselves in countries such as Madagascar, Philippines, and other islands of Southeast Asia.

So, it is distinctly possible that the Malabar Civet may actually be nothing more unique than the Large-spotted Civet.

Genetic analysis will go one step further in answering the question: do Malabar Civets exist?

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)