2907/2012 Durban Skhumbuzo Dlungelwa and Johannes Cele who is wearing free gift of new fake Leopard skin that was demontrated at the church. PICTURE: SIBUSISO NDLOVU

A conservationist who is on a quest to stop Nazareth Baptist Church members from wearing leopard skins and is offering to sell them fake skins at R600 each, has been kicked out of a church meeting at Ebuhleni, Inanda.

Tristan Dickerson works for the American conservation group Panthera, which is on a worldwide drive to protect leopards, an endangered species.

The Nazareth Baptist Church, known locally as the Shembe, uses the skins as part of traditional ceremonies and many Zulus wear leopard skins around their necks.

Yesterday church members laughed off Dickerson’s attempts to educate them about leopards, saying: “God will never allow the wild cats to vanish.”

Dickerson said the number of leopards in SA had dwindled to about 10 000. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has been reported as saying there are only 500 of the animals left in the province.

Dickerson said he wanted to sell the garments, which were made in China, for about R600 to the thousands of church members, who had gathered for their annual July prayer conference. Most of the people at the ceremony were wearing original skins.

Some liked the idea of introducing the fake skins to save leopards, although they complained they were expensive.

Others were openly hostile, giving the conservationist 15 minutes to leave the temple or be assaulted.

“This guy is undermining Zulu customs. We cannot be dictated to by a white man about what to wear during our ceremonies,” said Siphiwe Shoba, a church member.

Mzandile Gasa said: “God would not have sent a white person to tell us how to worship him.”

Members of the church’s executive committee have been discussing Dickerson’s idea for the past year.

One of them, the Reverend Mhlanubanzi Mjadu, said the committee had expressed conflicting views.

“There are those who are in favour of preserving leopards but feel the garment should be cheaper since it is fake and does not have the quality of the original skin. Then there are those who feel fake skins won’t be accepted as it would dilute our religious values.”

Dickerson said the price would enable him to import more garments from China as SA did not have the technology to produce them. Five percent of the proceeds would be donated to Panthera to use for leopard conservation.