Wild leopards threatened by religious tradition in Africa

Story Highlights

Followers of the Shembe religion in southern Africa strive to wear leopard skins during religious gatherings

Poachers are increasingly killing leopards to profit from their use in traditional medicine and ceremonial dress

Conservationist Tries To Produce Appropriate Fake Fur In China For Church Members

So far, elders and churchgoers have resisted the use of faux fur


A growing religion in southern Africa poses a threat to the survival of wild leopards.

For the Baptist Church of Nazareth, also known as Shembe, leopards are considered a symbol of pride, beauty and wealth, while their skins are considered essential clothing for church elders who wear them around the neck during traditional ceremonies.

A mixture of Christianity and Zulu culture, the Shembe is one of the largest traditional religious groups in South Africa with approximately 5 million members. Conservationists fear that as the church grows, African leopards, already listed as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), will be pushed down ‘extinction.

“As you visit a few of these (church) gatherings, you realize it’s not 92 or 100 or 200 (leopard skins). We’re talking thousands of leopard skins,” said Tristan Dickerson, a conservationist at the Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province.

Dickerson first discovered the Shembe during a police investigation, after a pile of at least 92 leopard skins was discovered during a raid on a village. Many of these skins had been made into clothing for the religious group.

As well as being killed by farmers trying to protect their livestock, 150 leopards are legally targeted by trophy hunters every year. But more and more poachers are killing them to profit from their use in traditional medicine and ceremonial clothing.

“What we’re seeing is that they’re actually targeted, as opposed to being bycatch of the illegal bushmeat trade,” Dickerson said. “They’re actually putting poisons on to target leopards because there’s such a demand for leopard skins now.”

The feline species is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, and the sale or possession of its parts is illegal in South Africa. Those who wear it as traditional gear, including Zulu royalty and the likes of President Jacob Zuma, must obtain state-issued permits. But at Shembe church gatherings, skins are traded openly without law enforcement.

Dickerson’s attempt to resolve this conflict of tradition and conservation took him to China where he tried to find a suitable alternative to faux fur for church members.

“I went to Beijing and spent a week there meeting with factory representatives to try to develop this fur to the level and quality needed,” Dickerson said.

And quality is crucial, because while church leaders have warmed to the concept of fake leopard skins, they have yet to endorse the product. Dickerson says church followers will only be converted to false ware if leaders say it is acceptable.

On a recent trip to Ekuphakameni, South Africa, where the church was founded, Dickerson visited a church gathering and showed his fur samples to a seasoned preacher.

“It’s beautiful, but it’s not the real thing,” said the preacher, Mhlanubanzi Mjadu. “It’s like a blanket. After a while it will wear out. Real leopard skin can last more than 20 years.

Mjadu said he had no idea that the trade in leopard parts was illegal and he did not know the leopard was an endangered species. He said as an elder he couldn’t wear a faux suit, but he could see a place for faux fur in the church as membership continued to grow and prices for the leopard skin seemed to increase. “It will help the congregation and protect the leopard from extinction,” he said.

Dickerson also hopes churchgoers who can’t afford the real thing will find the cheaper version an appealing alternative, but so far have shown no enthusiasm. At the Ekuphakameni gathering, real skins were sold for $440 each.

“We’re improving the product right now,” Dickerson said. “If we could get one of the leaders to wear one of these things and say to people, ‘It’s accepted from now on, we don’t wear real leopard skins anymore, we have an alternative’,” this statement … would be the culmination of this whole project.