Note: This is a guest blog post by Colwyn Thomas. Colwyn is part of a team of South African filmmakers creating awareness around critical conservation issues.
During the opening ceremony of the World Cup this year, a lone praise singer, resplendent in a magnificent leopard skin, took centre stage at Soccer City. I knew at the time that few of the billion people watching were asking where the singer had received the skin of a threatened and protected big cat, let alone wondering if he had a permit for it. What, I asked myself, would the reaction be if the man were wearing a tiger skin?
This is one example of a major conservation blind spot wreaking havoc in southern Africa right now: the widespread and rapid loss of leopard populations to an illegal yet culturally entrenched skin trade. The most frightening thing is not the rate at which these magnificent big cats are being hunted, but just how little the public knows about the trade.
The major demand for skins is created by the four million strong religious group known as the Shembe church. The Shembe have adopted leopard skins into their ceremonial life from their traditional place in Zulu culture where for hundreds of years the skins served as a sign of the royal family. Now, what was once the reserve of the elite is now sought after by millions of people, and at a single gathering upward of 600 leopards skins can be seen. In a country highly sensitive about race and culture, stopping a practice like this — however illegal — through the use of the law, is almost impossible. It is an accepted norm for too many people.
Conservationists need to be dynamic, out of the box thinkers, and solutions to problems like this need to respect both sides of the fence as much as possible. Enter Tristan Dickerson, field manager of the Munyawana Leopard Project, and To Skin a Cat, a documentary film recording and ultimately publicizing Dickerson’s efforts to save the region’s leopards.
For a man who has spent the last five years of his life dedicated to protecting leopards, Dickerson displays a surprisingly conciliatory approach to the Church’s use of leopards.
“After looking into the Shembe religion I do understand that they respect nature and it’s actually because they love leopards so much that they’re using them,” says Dickerson. “You can’t just start confiscating skins. It’s been going on so long that it’s now a norm of life. So we’re going to have to look at a different way in trying to solve this problem.”
Dickerson’s plan revolves around fake furs. Because leopard skins are thankfully expensive ($450) for the average church goer, many people wear cheap fakes while they save up for the real thing.
I spent a day with Dickerson at the Shembe mid-year celebrations, while he interviewed both owners and retailers of fake fur in an effort to better understand the demand.
“There’s obviously a market for them,” says Dickerson. “If we can create a good version at a cheap price, it will just take the pressure off the individual to spend so much money on a leopard. Or if he’s conservation-orientated and doesn’t want to use a leopard skin, then he has that option.”
Dickerson’s next step is sourcing furs, leopard rosette patterns, silk screeners and tailors. The key is to strike a balance between affordability and quality. Excellent fake furs are available overseas, but with a clientele that includes Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, these fakes cost more than the South African original. Dickerson plans to develop his furs over the next few months in order to have a prototype ready to introduce to the church in time for the annual pilgrimage in January.
Dickerson knows that to truly succeed, he’ll have to gain the endorsement of Mbusi Vimbeni Shembe, the powerful leader of the Church, and a man whose word, for millions of South Africans, represents the word of God. If he can affect a change here, it will not only register as a major victory for leopards, but also for the kind of dynamic and unorthodox approaches to conservation that the 21st century seems to increasingly require of us. Dickerson is going to have to think like an economist, a scientist, a designer and a conservationist, all at once. Most of all, he’s going to have to be a diplomat.
“The ideal situation would be to meet with Shembe himself, get one (skin) made and propose this to him, and see if it will be accepted at his level. Because if he okays it then the followers will accept it.”
It may sound like a bit of gamble. But as things stand, it’s the best bet southern Africa’s leopards have.
The goal of To Skin a Cat is to generate as much awareness and dialogue around the issue as possible, on both a national and international level. If you would like to find out more, get involved or make a contribution to the film go to www.toskinacat.org.
photo credit: To Skin a Cat
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