by Tony Carnie for The Mercury
A textile factory in Pietermaritzburg has started trial runs to produce high-quality fake leopard skins as part of a conservation project that could involve members of the Shembe church as financial partners.
Tristan Dickerson, the Hluhluwe leopard researcher driving the idea, said the project was an attempt to respect and preserve cultural and religious traditions while protecting the future of one of Africa’s big-cat species.
The leopard, once distributed widely through Africa, Asia and parts of Europe, is classified as “near-threatened” on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It estimates that there are fewer than 10 000 leopard breeding pairs in South Africa, although researchers believe this figure overestimates the true picture.
Although the cats are notoriously difficult to count because of their elusive habits, recent leopard population estimates by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife suggest that the provincial population could have declined to just 500 animals.
South Africa still allows 150 leopard-skin trophies to be exported legally every year, but researchers believe that many more are hunted or killed illegally. Adding to the pressure is the growing demand for leopard-skin pelts for traditional regalia.
Dickerson, the leopard programme co-ordinator of the international big cat conservation group, Panthera, said the discovery of more than 90 leopard skins at a Jozini house three years ago came as a shock to conservationists.
The skins were allegedly being tailored into traditional Zulu garments.
“The leopard population simply cannot sustain this level of pressure and we began to investigate out-of-the-box solutions… to protect the leopard population and also respect traditional and cultural practices,” he said.
Over the past few weeks, Ted’s Textiles in Pietermaritzburg has conducted tests to produce high-quality synthetic leopard skins on a Jacquard weaving machine.
Dickerson had held preliminary talks with several Shembe church leaders.
“The intention is to offer the church a large share in the system. We would like them to buy into the business and encourage members to wear these faux skins,” he said.
The aim was to offer fully washable “leopard skin” garments for less than R500 each.
The Mercury was unable to obtain official church comment. Zulu royal house spokesman Prince Mbonisi Zulu was also reluctant to comment.