Over the past century, the world has been losing big cats at an alarming rate. According to the United Nations, tiger populations plummeted by 95% over the past 100 years and African lion populations dropped by 40% in just 20 years. It is with this in mind that World Wildlife Day 2018 sheds light on the plight of these iconic predators. The theme, “Big cats: predators under threat” provides the opportunity to raise awareness and galvanise support for the many global and national actions that are underway to save these iconic species. One such project launched by Panthera and supported by Peace Parks Foundation has focused on saving the African leopard.
The Shembe – respecting tradition and culture
Twice a year, thousands of members of the Nazareth Baptist ‘Shembe’ Church gather in eBuhleni in KwaZulu-Natal in celebration of their religion. All along the narrow roads men and women prepare for the day. Tents and plastic sheets spun between trees offer some relief from the sun and thunderstorms so popular during the summer here. Temporary food kiosks offer fresh fruit and meat while R5 at the shop next door will get your phone charged for an hour.
Amongst all this activity, a team from the global wild cat conservation organisation, Panthera, make their way through the crowds carrying precious Amambatha. These fabric replicas of capes worn by male members of the church, are being taken to the Church office where they will be sold to the congregation.
Traditionally, the garments are made from the skin of the leopard – an animal revered by the Shembe as a symbol of pride, beauty and wealth. “How much?” is enthusiastically asked over and over as the group passes by Shembe Church members. “We have a great relationship with the church. We’ve managed to gain their trust by proving that we respect and protect their traditions. After many years of building this relationship they allow us access to the holy grounds to do our research and distribute our Amambatha,” says Tristan Dickerson, the Furs for Life Leopard Programme Manager who first thought of introducing faux leopard skin to replace real ones at traditional ceremonies, such as the Shembe gathering.
Leopards are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They are classified as endangered in Central Asia and Sri Lanka and critically endangered in the Middle East, Russia and the Indonesian island of Java. In South Africa, the leopard population is in decline. Tristan says, “The leopard’s beautiful skin is the primary reason it is the world’s most persecuted big cat. And in my years of work to protect the leopards of southern Africa, I’ve realised the only way to stop the hunting of leopards for their skins is to address the problem head-on – with creativity and respect for local religion and culture.”
One ‘Amambatha’ means many leopards saved
In 2013 during his first visit to this gathering, Tristan discovered that Shembe members were using up to 1 500 illegal leopard skins at a single gathering as ceremonial garb. This initiated the Furs for Life Project which aimed to develop a high-quality and affordable fabric cape that closely resembles leopard skin, and which could be introduced as an alternative. “We spent a great deal of time studying the colours, patterns and textures found on a leopard’s skin in order to replicate it as close to the real thing as possible.”
When watching a procession of approximately 1 500 male Shembe members move up towards the holy grounds where they dance it is almost impossible to take in the sheer number of leopard skin on display. “This year we recorded a ratio of one Panthera Amambatha for every real leopard skin cape worn – the ratio of fabric to authentic skins has remained near parity since mid-2015 but this is a vast improvement from the early days of the project when the ration was one Panthera Amambatha for every eight real leopard skins. The result from this year is the best result at an eBuhleni gathering thus far,” says Gareth Whittington-Jones, the Furs for Life Project Coordinator at Panthera.
Speaking to members of the Shembe church it is clear to see that the respect offered to them by the Panthera team is returned. “Replacing the real skins with fabric capes is the one side of the project, the other is to educate people, many of whom are unaware of the fact that leopards are an endangered species and that it is, in fact, illegal to wear a leopard skin without a permit,” says Tristan. The hope is that as people start to understand the threat to the leopard, they will choose to wear the Panthera Amambatha instead of actual leopard skin. Also, through the partnership with Peace Parks Foundation and through funding support from Cartier, it has been possible to subsidise the cost of the fabric capes so that it is also a significantly cheaper alternative. “In order to make the project sustainable we have managed to use donor funding to first distribute the Amambatha to church members without any cost to them. We then offered the fabric furs to the church at a reduced cost, using donor funding to subsidise the difference. By the end of 2018, we hope to sell it to the church at cost, which would allow us to continue the project without the need for further support from donors to create the fur.”
Extending a lifeline to Zambia’s leopards
Since 2013, the Furs for Life project has distributed a total of 17 602 Amambatha. Building on this success, and through continued support from Peace Parks Foundation and Cartier, the same concept will now be extended to other cultural groups that use leopard skins as part of traditional ceremonies, beginning with the Lozi in south-western Zambia. The Lozi, like the Shembe, wear leopard skins as a symbol of prestige. The actual number of leopard skins worn by the Lozi is yet to be determined, but comparisons between counts conducted at Lozi and Shembe gatherings suggest that it may run into the hundreds to thousands. The same factors that influenced the success of the Shembe project are also present in Zambia, so lessons learned from that project will go a long way in promoting its impact, ultimately contributing to ensuring the survival of leopards for future generations.