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Shembe change their spots

Published Oct 22, 2015


TRISTAN Dickerson’s eyes sparkle and his speech quickens when he talks of Zululand’s wilderness areas. The 37-year-old ranger used to fight poachers while on patrol.

Now he believes he is making a bigger difference to conservation than ever before. For three years, Tristan and his team at Panthera, an international wild cat conservation NGO, have supplied fake leopard furs for free to members of the Shembe Church.

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The Shembe Church – also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church – has its stronghold in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The religion is a blend of Old Testament Christianity and traditional Zulu traditions, particularly the reverence of ancestors.

More than a million people belong to the Shembe Church, and many of the men wear leopard skins while worshipping. In one gathering, there could be more than a thousand members wearing leopard skins.

“So in one church gathering, there are more leopard skins than there are leopards in the whole of Kruger National Park. And twice as many as all the leopards in Zululand. This demand is clearly not so good for the conservation of leopards,” says Dickerson.

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Panthera’s research estimates that about 21 000 Shembe church members in KwaZulu-Natal wear real leopard skins.

Like elephants, lions and rhinos, the number of leopards in Africa has plummeted in the last 50 years. According to Dr Guy Balme, the director of Panthera’s leopard programme, the species has disappeared from about 40% of its historical range on the continent. As human population grows, and more land is required for agriculture and development, the natural habitat has disappeared.

“Bear in mind that there are only about three to five thousand leopards in South Africa. So there are more than three times the number of skins in the Shembe church than the whole country,” says Balme.

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The huge illegal demand for leopard skins drives poaching and illegal hunting in South Africa and across the continent.

Perhaps paradoxically, given the soaring demand for skins, the Zulus revere the leopard. Shaka was the first to issue skins as a reward, but it was probably since King Cetshwayo wore one in the 1890s that it’s been considered a great honour to wear a leopard pelt, known as amambatha.

“The power of the leopard skin doesn’t come from the skin itself,” explains Lizwe Ncwane, a senior member of the church and a key supporter of the Panthera project.

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“The power comes from the tradition where the king used to give a leopard skin as a reward. If the king gave you one, you were extremely privileged. Traditionally the king was the only person that was allowed to issue them.”

Today, Jacob Zuma, King Goodwill Zwelithini and several other high-profile Zulus regularly wear them at ceremonies.

With the passing of time, leopard skins have become more of a status symbol. Among the Shembe it confers a sense of belonging and identity within the church.

But the thousands of members of the Shembe Church who each paid for a real leopard skin are probably breaking the law.

The species is listed on the stringent Appendix 1 of CITES, an international organisation that controls the trade of wild animals and their body parts. And in South Africa, the Biodiversity Act adds an even higher level of protection.

“The law in principle protects leopards,” says Dickerson. “The act states that it’s illegal to possess a leopard skin without a permit. And even though thousands of Shembe own skins, no permits have been issued to a member in KZN or the rest of SA for the last few years.”

The law means little to Zulus, who have worn leopard skins for over a century. So Tristan and Panthera have to tread lightly.

“We have to work with the Shembe, rather than against them. Most of the members don’t know it’s illegal. The leopard is such a huge part of the Zulu culture. Let’s be real. If we went in fighting, this project would collapse and even more wild leopards would be killed. We have to offer a viable solution.”

For the past three years, Tristan and Panthera have supplied more than 8 000 fake skins to the church.

“It’s the fake Rolex concept. Some of the members will spend their whole life saving up for a leopard skin because they feel inferior to other members who have them.”

“It’s important to remember that these days the leopard skin is worn for aesthetic and status reasons, so that everyone can look the same.

The church members don’t get power from the skin. If they believed this, then our project would be in trouble. But it’s all about aesthetics now.

More and more Shembe members are wearing the fake skins, which are made in a textile factory in the city of Cixi, south of Shanghai in China.

“We can’t make them fast enough,” says Tristan.

With funding from Peace Parks Foundation, Panthera and the Shembe leadership will be distributing a further 13 000 fake furs in the next two years. This would replace almost all the real skins.

Panthera’s project has impli-cations for conservation in the rest of Africa, where wildlife is losing ground against human population and development.“If we’re hoping to be successful in conservation we can’t just be field biologists anymore,” says Dr. Guy Balme.

“We need a multidisciplinary approach. We need to be economists. We need to be politicians. We need to be social scientists. But what I didn’t know is that we’d also have to be fashion designers!”

l Ramsay is a conservation photojournalist working in protected areas in Africa. Partners include Cape Union Mart, K-Way, Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Escape Gear and Tracks4Africa.

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