A lifeline for leopards


They say a leopard cannot change its spots, but members of the Nazareth Baptist Shembe Church are changing their way of thinking. After more than five years of work with conservationists, many church members are warming up to the idea of safeguarding the leopard.

An essential part of the traditional outfit worn by male Shembe members includes a leopard skin cape draped over the shoulders. The church is one of the fastest-growing religions in South Africa, with an estimated membership of between one and five million people.

faux fur leopard skin

Photo: Gareth Whittington-Jones

The use of leopard skin capes caused concern among many, especially after Panthera, an organisation devoted to protecting the world’s wild cat species and their ecosystems, discovered Shembe members used up to 15 000 pelts at a single annual gathering. When Panthera noticed some members had opted for a more economical option in the form of imitation leopard skin capes, they came up with a solution.

furs for life faux fur leopard skin for African Church

Photo: Gareth Whittington-Jones

“The cost of real skin capes varies from approximately R3 500 for a small, poor quality one to about R8 000,” says Gareth Whittington­-Jones, Panthera’s Furs for Life project coordinator. Partnering with the Peace Parks Foundation, with jeweller Cartier as a sponsor, five years ago Panthera was able to design and manufacture its first realistic faux fur capes – named amambatha – at a fraction of the price. Today, 50% of all skins used at ceremonies are leopard-friendly.

“We aim to transition to a completely self-sustaining business model,” says Whittington-Jones. The expected retail price is less than R1 000. The concept will be extended to other cultural groups that use leopard skins. The Lozi tribe in Zambia has already pledged support. Just under 18 000 capes have been distributed through the Furs for Life Project.


Written by René de Klerk

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