To Skin a Cat is a documentary film about one man’s mission to halt the alarming decline in southern Africa’s leopard populations due to a widespread skin trade.
Traditionally, only the Zulu royals have been allowed to wear leopard skins. However, in the last three decades the Shembe Church, a four million strong religious group, has adopted the skins into their ceremonial costume. The demand for leopard skins is now astronomical. Because the use of skins is so wide spread and culturally entrenched, law enforcement seems helpless to police this trade in a protected species. It has become, in one researchers words, ‘a major conservation blindspot’.
That’s the problem. But this film is about the solution. Leopard researcher Tristan Dickerson believes that you can’t save the leopard without the support of the Shembe people. The film follows Dickerson as he travels from the heart of leopard country to the heart of Shembe and Zulu culture in an effort to discover a solution that benefits all parties. His best solution turns out to be fake fur. Bad fakes are commonly used by church members while they save for the expensive real thing. Dickerson believes that if he can produce a high quality, affordable fake fur, and gain the endorsement of the powerful leader of the Church he can turn the tables in favor of the leopard.
We have been working on this film for the last two years. In the process we have built excellent relationships with Shembe Church members, poachers, anti-poachers, traditional tailors, conservationists and law officers. Yet throughout this process the problem has only grown worse. The time is finally right to make this film and in so doing, create as much awareness and support as possible for Dickerson’s project.
At the heart of our story is the conviction that all groups, from the poachers who hunt the leopards to the scientists who study them, need to be a working part of the solution, or else the whole thing will eventually fall apart. Like we said, this has been called a major conservation blindspot. We’d like you to help us change that.