Furs for Life Project
 © Michael Viljoen
© Michael Viljoen
Peace Parks Foundation has joined forces with Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organisation, in a partnership to protect and revive southern Africa’s leopard populations.
Supported by Cartier, Peace Parks Foundation and Panthera are working through Panthera’s Furs for Life Project to conserve the world’s most persecuted big cat – the leopard (often mistakenly called the panther). The leopard, an emblematic species of Africa, is revered around the world for its gorgeous spotted coat.
Leopard have vanished from at least 49% of their historic range in Africa, with as many as 7 500 being killed each year. The heaviest poaching occurs in South Africa, where fewer than 5 000 wild leopard remain.

In southern Africa, leopard skins are coveted by members of the Nazareth Baptist ‘Shembe’ Church who wear the furs during religious celebrations and ceremonies. To reduce the hunting of leopards and the high demand for leopard furs among the Shembe community, Panthera collaborated with digital designers and clothing companies to create a high-quality, durable and realistic fabric cape, known as an amambatha.
Panthera's fabric cape worn by Shembe members
Panthera's fabric cape worn by Shembe members
Respecting the cultural traditions of the Shembe, Panthera and Peace Parks Foundation are collaborating with church leaders to encourage their members to use these fabric capes at religious ceremonies. To date, a total of 17 602 fabric capes have been donated to Shembe members throughout South Africa. The infusion of Cartier’s generous contribution has allowed Panthera and Peace Parks Foundation to significantly expand the Furs for Life Project and reduce the threat to wild leopards.

Says Lizwi Ncwane, an elder and legal adviser of the Nazareth Baptist 'Shembe' Church: "As a leader of the Shembe community, I have seen firsthand how receptive my community is to using these fake skins. Not only do they look and feel like real leopard skins, they also last longer. We're grateful that Panthera has worked with us in finding a solution that interweaves the conservation of leopards with the customs of the Shembe."
Other initiatives supported through the expansion of the project include facilitating increased enforcement of laws regulating possession and trade of leopard skins in southern Africa; training and equipping local wildlife rangers to initiate leopard population surveys at key sites in South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland; and establishing a conservation education programme among Shembe communities in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Progress made

 © Michael Viljoen
© Michael Viljoen
  • A total of 17 602 amambatha (fabric capes) were distributed among Shembe followers since the project’s inception;
  • An educational video was shown to over 200 schoolchildren in northern Zululand;
  • The numbers of Shembe dancers wearing amambatha has been greater than the numbers wearing real leopard skins at several gatherings, an encouraging sign that the fabric capes are successfully reducing the demand for leopard skins;
  • Camera-trap surveys were undertaken at 10 sites in the Lubombo TFCA, and at 24 sites across South Africa;
  • Increases in leopard density were recorded at several sites in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo province;
  • The Camera CATalogue citizen science initiative successfully launched;
  • 1 100 leopard DNA samples  were collected across southern Africa, with preliminary findings of the genetic forensics study presented at CITES 17th Conference of Parties; and
  • The moratorium on leopard trophy hunting in South Africa was maintained in 2017.

Extending a lifeline to Zambia's leopards
Building on the success of Furs for Life in South Africa, and through continued support from Peace Parks Foundation and Cartier, the same concept will now be extended to other cultural groups that use leopard skins as part of traditional ceremonies, beginning with the Lozi in south-western Zambia. The Lozi, like the Shembe, wear leopard skins as a symbol of prestige. The actual number of leopard skins worn by the Lozi is yet to be determined, but comparisons between counts conducted at Lozi and Shembe gatherings suggest that it may run into the hundreds to thousands. The same factors that influenced the success of the Shembe project are also present in Zambia, so lessons learned from that project will go a long way in promoting its impact, ultimately contributing to ensuring the survival of leopards for future generations.

About Panthera

Panthera, founded in 2006, is devoted exclusively to the conservation of wild cats and their ecosystems. Utilising the expertise of the world’s premier cat biologists, Panthera develops and implements global conservation strategies for the most imperilled large cats – tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, cougars and leopards. Representing the most comprehensive effort of its kind, Panthera works in partnership with local and international NGOs, scientific institutions, local communities and governments around the globe. Visit Panthera and learn more about Panthera’s Project Pardus, the first global conservation initiative for wild leopards.

Read more about Panthera's #IFAKEIT social media campaign to raise awareness for one of fashion's most revered but underrepresented icons - the leopard - here.

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