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Saving the Leopard’s Skin

Thousands upon thousands of Shembe Church followers have always worn leopard fur. KwaZulu-Natal ecologist Tristan Dickerson convinces them to go fake on the capes and give leopards a future

Scarcely a day goes by without reports of atrocities committed against wildlife. The slaying of Cecil, the celebrated black-maned lion of Hwange, dominated the world media. Simultaneously, the documentary Blood Lions exposed appalling details of canned- lion hunting in South Africa.

Such news provokes massive public anger but no sooner has the dust settled than fresh outrages make headlines.

You have to wonder if there’s any hope for the wild animals with which we share this planet.

Mercifully, amid all the doom and gloom, positive stories do emerge; stories of people like Tristan Dickerson, a soft- spoken man with the patience of a saint and the heart of a lion, whose trailblazing, fake, leopard-fur capes have, in his words, “eliminated a huge threat to leopards in South Africa”.

The story begins in Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, where Tristan, a behavioural ecologist, spent five years monitoring leopard populations and the impact of hunting on their numbers. “My focus was on cattle farmers, and problems they were having with leopards,” says Tristan. He knew it would accomplish nothing to “go in fighting”. More could be achieved by using science to ensure that hunting was sustainable.

But even though a strict permit system governs hunting in KZN, Tristan found that many leopards were being caught in snares, or poisoned. Until then, his research hadn’t touched on illegal hunting. Two simultaneous events happened next to shed new light on the situation. “I was invited to a Shembe Church gathering near Phinda. There I saw 200 congregants wearing leopard skins.” The gathering was small and the 200 furs worn there represented but the tip of the iceberg.

The second incident occurred when Tristan and the Organised Crime Unit were working together on other poaching- related incidents. They raided a rural house belonging to a tailor and found it packed with leopard skins. “We took 160 samples and extracted DNA from 112 of them. Of those, 92 were different leopards.” After a year of painstaking legal work, the case went to court but was thrown out on a technicality.

Many would have given up, but not Tristan. “You slowly get desensitized and stop reacting emotionally.” He adopted a different approach, and looked into the Shembe religion. “I started attending bigger gatherings and speaking to people to find out why they use leopard skins. I thought, if I could understand that, I might come up with a plan.” His findings turned out to be the saving grace: the faithful wore leopard skins not because of any perceived strength or superficial power transferred from the pelts, but simply for aesthetic reasons. “The Shembe people love leopards,” says Tristan

Furthermore, those who couldn’t afford real skins wore fakes, notably impala hides painted with black spots, or poor quality leopard lookalike fabric from China, while they saved up to buy the genuine article. “It’s a matter of belonging, as with emblems in other religions,” Tristan says. The answer thus lay in developing an alternative that would pass for the real thing, one that would become known as the Furs for Life project.

The Shembe leadership was open to the idea, so Tristan set about creating an authentic-looking design. His target was not only new converts or those who couldn’t afford real skins but also church members wanting to replace worn-out furs. Given that the average lifespan of a real skin is five years, and that an estimated 22 000 members of the church wear skins, South Africa’s leopards were in dire trouble. To come up with a design that couldn’t be faulted, Tristan digitalised four patterns from skins confiscated at the tailor’s house. “Those leopards didn’t die entirely in vain,” he says.

Over the next few years, and as Tristan learnt the intricacies of the textile business, everything that could go wrong, did.

The first major hitch happened just months into the project when the only machine in Africa that could do the job broke down. Repairs were out of the question because the Pietermaritzburg factory that housed the high-tech Jacquard knitting machine had practically gone out of business. “The minimum wage laws had led to the collapse of the textile industry in South Africa,” Tristan explains.

 Next stop was China, one of the few countries that have massive machines with the memory required to produce a continuous repeat of the four different designs, each sequence measuring 3m x 1.4m. Negotiations ensued, language difficulties compounding the already complex process, and samples were couriered to China.

At last, after years of intensive work, the first shipment of fur arrived. Role players gathered for the unveiling and, as the first bag was opened and the faux fur was revealed, everyone fell silent. The spots were brown. “Every bag was the same,” Tristan says. “We had 300 metres of faux fur with brown spots instead of black.”

With the deadline for handing over the furs three weeks away, the only solution was to paint the spots black. Still, and even though the hastily applied colour ran out after the first couple of washes, the replicas were so good, the church accepted the concept. Tristan also assured the recipients of those first dud furs that they would receive replacements.

Happily, the next consignment was a success, Tristan and graphic designer, Greg Lomas travelling to China a number of times to oversee the process. Since then, the project has run smoothly and 8 500 synthetic capes e or amambatha e have been handed out at Shembe gatherings. This means that 30 per cent of furs worn at Shembe gatherings are now replicas, compared to l0 per cent a year ago.

By the end of 2016, around l8 000 amambatha will have been distributed free of charge. The only requirement is that each recipient fills out a form that helps researchers understand the skin trade better. “We gather how long a real fur lasts for or how often they’re replaced,” says Tristan. “We can also see if Shembe followers feel that having a leopard skin is a crime, and if leopard numbers in KZN are dropping.”

The project presents a model of achievement that should inspire other conservation causes. Much of that success is down to the relationship that Tristan built with key players in the church and the resulting mutual understanding and respect. He is, though, modest about his own role. “None of what’s been achieved would have been possible without the commitment of the Shembe people. They’re the ones making the change that is conserving leopards. They understand that heritage is in us and not on us and that, if you wear something different, you’re not changing your heritage.”

While he is still fully involved in Furs for Life, Tristan has since left Phinda to take up the post of general manager of PheZulu Safari Park in the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KZN. “It was a hard decision to leave Phinda,” he says. “It was my dream job. But my wife, Tarryne and I wanted our children to have the chance of a better education than what we could give them in the bush.”

Today, he might live in a much tamer area, but Tristan is no less committed to protecting wildlife. “Small reserves like this one are extremely important in that they can make a powerful impact on many people who might not otherwise get to experience the wild.”

He tells me that l0 000 schoolchildren visit Phezulu every year. “I hope that at least one in thirty is touched by what they see and learn here.”

Considering that Tristan’s dogged persistence and innovative ideas have helped ensure the survival of one of the most hunted cats in Africa, there can be no doubt he’ll succeed in touching those young minds.

Status of Leopards

According to Tristan, leopards are the most persecuted cat species in the world. Only 2 500-3 000 leopards remain in South Africa. In KZN the number is between 300 and 600. Illegal hunting, killing for skins, legal destruction because of stock loss, revenge killing that often results in many leopards dying, and by-catch from snares for the bush meat trade, are pushing this magnificent animal to the brink of extinction.

 Furs for Life
  • The project is supported and funded by Panthera, a USA- based organisation that works in partnership with local and international NGOs, scientific institutions, local communities and governments around the globe to conserve the big wild cats and their ecosystems.
  • Panthera has recently established an office in South Africa. programs/leopard/furs-life- leopard-project
  • To Skin a Cat is a documentary by Colwyn Thomas and Greg Lomas about Tristan’s mission to save the leopard. Production is in the final stages and the film should be released within the next few months. To see a trailer go to
  • Tristan employs up to five women from the Valley of a Thousand Hills to sew the amambatha. He provides the venue at his home, plus machines and all materials.
The Shembe Church
  • I Shembe is considered the fastest-growing religion in the country and is spreading into Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Membership is currently estimated at between one and five million.
  • I Only married men who can afford the full ceremonial attire, and who dance at gatherings, are entitled to wear amambatha
  • In KZN, leopard skin was originally worn only by royalty but, about 30 years ago, Shembes started using it for ceremonial attire.
  • The African Congregational Church, whose women members wear leopard-fur headdresses, has expressed interest in the faux furs.