Church helps leopards by changing its spots

12 June 2016 - 02:00 By SHELLEY SEID

Collaboration between KwaZulu-Natal filmmakers, a zoologist and the Shembe Church have given Southern Africa's leopards a new lease of life.This week, zoologist Tristan Dickerson celebrates a triumph in his campaign to halt the trade in leopard skins when a documentary about his work debuts at the Durban International Film Festival.To Skin a Cat documents how co-operation - and an uncannily realistic fake fur - has helped the majestic wild cats live all nine of their lives.It is estimated that there are no more than 5,000 leopards in South Africa. Every year, throughout southern Africa, about 1,500 to 2,500 are hunted so that their pelts can be used in religious and cultural ceremonies, often by followers of the Nazareth Baptist, or Shembe, Church.Six years ago, when Dickerson, through the conservation organisation Panthera, began researching threats to the leopard he realised that efforts to protect the cats had to involve the church - at some of its events upwards of 1,000 leopard skins will be in evidence. That is possibly more than the total leopard population of Kruger National Park. There are up to 15,000 real skins in circulation among Shembe followers . . . More than there are live leopards estimated in SA Dickerson said he noticed many church members wore fake skins - antelope or cattle hides painted with spots, for example - because they could not afford genuine leopard skins, which cost up to R5,500.That gave him a potential solution to the problem - faux fur.The documentary focuses on the process of creating a high-quality, authentic-looking and affordable alternative to leopard pelts.That was no easy task, said Dickerson, because no two leopards had the same spots.The fabric is imported from China and the garments are assembled in Durban.Guy Balme, Panthera's leopard programme director, said conservation successes meant that leopards, regarded as near threatened, could soon be reclassified as merely vulnerable."Our data shows there are up to 15,000 real leopard skins in circulation among Shembe followers," said Balme.story_article_left1"That's three times more skins than there are live leopards estimated in South Africa."Of course the skins are not only sourced locally; we look at genetics and we see that most are from outside our borders. This demand is therefore having a regional effect on leopard populations."Dickerson, aware that without understanding both sides of the story the project was doomed to fail, met with church members and Zulu historians and won support from powerful traditional leaders such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi.The IFP leader said he lent his name to the Panthera project when Dickerson's team interviewed him for the documentary.The film ends in 2013, when the first fake furs were distributed. Since then, the project has expanded significantly."People said the fake fur wouldn't work because of the status symbol of the real fur," said Dickerson. "I disagreed. The fake fur is a status symbol in its own right."The fake furs cost less than R300 and they are donated to the church, thanks to support from Panthera, the Peace Parks Foundation, and watch and jewellery company Cartier.Balme said funding had been secured for 18,000 fakes. More than 13,000 have already been distributed.

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