April 19th, 2018

To Skin a Cat

Written by:

Toby Pheasant




The leopard population in Southern Africa has been steadily declining over the last 20 years. 

Known as the ‘King of the Jungle’ in African folklore, the cause for the decline has been almost entirely human - driven by an increasing demand for their skin. It’s estimated that in certain areas of Southern Africa, leopards could disappear within 5 years.

By incorporating leopard skins into their traditional dress, the people of the four million strong Shembe Church have been unwittingly bringing about the demise of the animal they so much respect. Previously undocumented by conservationists, and with more than 800 leopards being killed each year in the region, something drastic had to be done.

A leopard in dappled light seen from Royal Malewane, Thornybush Private Game Reserve, South Africa

Tristan Dickerson, one of the world’s leading cat conservationists has set about creating a solution to this epidemic. Inspired by the tragic news that yet another poaching case had been dropped, this time involving over 200 leopard skins, Tristan set about raising awareness about the issue through a crowdfunded documentary.

In this film (trailer below), Tristan explores the ways to save the leopard in a way that will be supported by the Shembe people, believing that you can’t save the leopard without the support of the Shembe. 

His solution: Fake Furs. Poor quality fakes are often used by church members saving up to purchase the expensive real fur. Dickerson believes that if he can produce a top quality, convincing and affordable fake fur, with a number of different patterns, and by gaining the endorsement of the powerful leader of the Church, he can significantly lower the numbers of leopards poached every year.

Members of the Shembe Church wearing fake leopard fur

For centuries the right to wear a real leopard skin has only been awarded to Zulu royals. This has however changed over the last thirty years. The Shembe Church has adopted the skins into their ceremonial costume en masse, resulting in the demand for leopard skins skyrocketing. Due to the cultural sensitivity and sheer numbers of skins in circulation policing the illegal trade of leopard skins has become near impossible.

Tristan and his team worked on the film for over six years. In the process they developed excellent relationships with people throughout the illegal industry. From Shembe Church members, tailors, law officers, conservationists and even poachers, they have witnessed the trade first hand. Throughout the six years in production, the team saw the problem first exacerbate before slowly starting to stabilise. Now the fake animal furs are starting to be accepted by the Shembe and there is hope for the future of the leopard.

If you are interested in finding more about this, or any other conservation projects, please get in contact with us at safari@bonamy.co.uk.

Thanks for reading,

The Bonamy Travel Team

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