South African Church Goes Faux Fur To Conserve Leopards

South African Church Goes Faux Fur To Conserve Leopards

Leopard skins are a symbol of royalty and pride in the Shembe religion of KwaZulu-Natal, but dancers in the church’s five-million-plus members are switching to faux fur to conserve the big cats, according to a report in TheGuardian.

Panthera, a U.S.-based conservation group, has worked to stem poaching in recent years by developing authentic-looking fake leopard skins and by persuading the Shembe to use them.

Shembe men draped in leopard skins carry Zulu warrior shields and move hypnotically as they go through the steps of a traditional religious ritual. They worship God through prayers as well as dance in a religion founded 100 years ago with roots in Christianity and Zulu customs. The church is officially known as the Nazareth Baptist Church.

But with leopards threatened by habitat loss and poaching, Shembe leaders have bought into a cheaper and more sustainable alternative that still upholds tradition, TheGuardian reports.

“The leopardskin has got a significance because it shows power,” said church spokesman Lizwi Ncwane. “For the past four months now, we have been using fake skins because we are trying to bring awareness among our people.”

Tens of thousands of church members attend a special service each January where church elders dressed in ceremonial garb move to the rhythmic sound of drumbeats and low trumpets.

Participants must wear colorful ceremonial dress, which includes a loincloth of monkey
tails, a leopard skin belt, elaborate headgear with ostrich feathers, and above all a cape of
leopardskin slung across the chest, TheGuardian reports.

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“It represents being the king,” said mine worker Sphiwe Cele, who says he paid 4,500
rand ($411) for a legally hunted, authentic leopard skin.

“Of course, we are not the king of the Zulu, but Shembe said we are the kings of our homes,
so we must wear this today when we go to the traditional gathering,” he told TheGuardian.

Only foreign tourists or the very wealthy can afford leopard-hunting permits in South Africa. Conservation groups say the trophies worn at Shembe gatherings are illegal.

“This is the biggest display of illegal wildlife contraband on Earth,” said Guy Balme, Africa
leopard program director with the U.S.-based conservation group Panthera. Balme attended a Shembe gathering. “Everything you see here is totally illegal,” he said.

Most of the skins come from poachers in South Africa and neighboring Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, he said.

Listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, leopards number between 5,000 and 7,000 in South Africa, according to Bool Smuts, director of the conservation group Landmarks Foundation.

“They certainly are on a distinct decline,” he said, adding that no official records exist.

Panthera has worked to stem poaching in recent years by developing authentic-looking fake leopard skins and has persuaded the Shembe to use them.

Some low-income dancers were already wearing a form of fake fur with cow and impala skins painted with leopard spots, said the leopard program co-ordinator Tristan Dickerson.

“So I thought, ‘Well, if I came up with a realistic version, maybe we can introduce it to the
church,'” Dickerson said.

The fabric is made in China, shipped to Durban, and sewn to assemble the final product.

“It has taken four years to get to the point where we are now, where they are accepting the furs and they are using them,” Dickerson said.

Panthera has given away 2,000 faux furs and plans to distribute 6,000 total by mid-2014.

About 10 percent of church members now use fake fur since the church put its support
behind the initiative, according to TheGuardian.

Ncwane estimates up to 70 percent of dancers will give up real skins in favor of fake fur within two years.

Faux loincloths, bracelets and belts are expected to follow, costing much less than the full natural fur regalia, which fetches up to $1,500.

“It has become a kind of a trend,” John Smith, a Panthera volunteer, told TheGuardian. “At the beginning, some were very rude and told me they didn’t need those needless blankets. It was then endorsed by the church.”