If you are privileged enough to have seen a leopard in the wild, you will instantly understand why the sight of this elusive and largely nocturnal animal is such a prized sighting. Possessed of a powerful yet elegant gait, leopards are stealth-like with a tactical approach to hunting that makes them a notoriously silent killer. They are also highly adaptable and as at home climbing trees as they are swimming. But it is their light-colored coats with a distinctive dark colored spot or rosette (it’s thought to resemble a rose) that makes them an icon of the wild. So much so, that despite the vagaries of fashion, the exotic predatory pattern of leopard has endured as a fashion statement for well over a century.
Ironically, this international predilection for the beauty of leopard print has made them a victim of their own success. Far from the global catwalks in southern Africa, real leopard skins are just as highly coveted by members of the Nazareth Baptist ‘Shembe’ Church who wear the furs during religious celebrations and ceremonies. With the leopard now extinct in six countries, it is believed that human expansion has cost leopards an estimated 66% of their range in Africa. However, the heaviest poaching occurs in South Africa, where fewer than 5 000 wild leopards remain. Here, the species is largely threatened for their skins and body parts that are used for ceremonial regalia, bushmeat poaching, conflict with local people and trophy hunting.
It was when global wild cat conservation organization Panthera’s research into leopard decline revealed that some 20 000 leopard skins are used as ceremonial regalia that they came up with a novel plan. Under the auspices of Furs for Life, a dynamic partnership with fashion house Cartier and the Peace Parks Foundation, their aim to protect and revive the leopard population while respecting the cultural traditions of the Shembe came to fruition three years ago. Fashion’s obsession with leopard-print had the opportunity to give back by aiding in the design of a high-quality, durable and realistic fake leopard fur cape known as amambatha.
Panthera’s president, Dr. Luke Hunter, explains: ‘To date 17 409 fake leopard furs have been distributed to Shembe members throughout South Africa. The Shembe traditional and church leaders have played a big part in motivating their members to better understand the significance of leopard protection, and embrace the wearing of fabric capes as accepted ceremonial wear. Most importantly they have led by example with the first capes that were worn by leaders themselves. ‘
A strong indication of just how successful this project is that when Panthera first began surveying dancers at Shembe gatherings in 2014, only 10% of all dancers wore amambatha – the remainder wore authentic leopard skins. However, at a recent Shembe gathering at eBuhleni in July 2017, where roughly 1 400 dancers were in attendance, the ratio of fabric to authentic leopard skins was near parity (1:1.2).
And when you consider that each sustainable skin donated represents a leopard saved, you get a sense of just how critical this initiative is for leopard conservation. Serendipitously, the production of sustainable skins also provides employment and business opportunities for local communities, an essential factor in any conservation effort.
We’d love to curate an itinerary that allows you to see this magnificent creature in its natural habitat, we can also arrange a personal visit to the Furs for Life foundation, simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call + 1 855 666 7627