The wearing of fur is not always a frivolous vanity. For members of the Shembe church (officially known as the Nazareth Baptist church) in South Africa leopard skins are a symbol of pride and royalty, an essential element of religious ritual. If there were ever a reason to continue wearing fur, one could argue that members of this religion, which was founded a century ago in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal region and has roots in Christianity and Zulu customs, might have one. Instead, Shembe believers have agreed to phase out the wearing of real leopard skins in an effort to protect these endangered big cats.
The Guardian reports that conservationists and church leaders have recently entered into a pact designed to preserve Shembe religious ceremonies without supporting the poaching and habitat loss currently driving leopards to extinction.
“Participants must wear the colourful ceremonial dress, which includes a loincloth of monkey tails, a leopardskin belt, elaborate headgear with ostrich feathers, and above all a cape of leopardskin slung across their chests,” reports the Guardian.
The garments are worn as an indication of worship, often by men who dance to drumbeats and low trumpets. Unfortunately, most of which are supplied by poachers in South Africa and neighboring countries. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and conservationists, poaching has continued to meet the demand for exotic animal parts around the world. We often associate poaching as part of the ivory trade, but it’s driving more than just elephants and rhinos to the brink of extinction.
Although conservationists may deploy drones and other advanced technologies to fight poachers, it will always be a losing battle when the practice is condoned, or even supported by the ceremonial needs of local citizens. That’s why those fighting to save big cats in Africa chose to skip the poachers and work to change the minds of those who are fueling their work. It wasn’t easy, but they’re now beginning to see the fruits of their labor. Under the new agreement, religious leaders have agreed to cast off their illegal pelts in favor of faux fur replacements.
According to U.S.-based conservation group Panthera, which has worked for several years to introduce faux furs into the Shembe ceremonies, 10 percent of members’ furs are now estimated to be fake, since the church endorsed the initiative. A huge incentive has been that the faux furs are far cheaper than genuine regalia. Panthera has set a goal of distributing 6,000 mantles – free, for now – by mid-2014, and has already given out a third of that.
This is great news for the leopards, certainly. The only drawback is that the replacement furs are made in China from nylon, acrylic and polyester, all sourced from nonrenewable petroleum and requiring a huge amount of energy. “Producing one kilogram of polyester requires 109 megajoules of energy, with 46 megajoules going toward the raw materials and 63 megajoules used to turn those materials into a finished fiber. Nylon consumes 150 megajoules per kilogram; acrylic, 157,” according to Kate Fletcher’s Sustainable Fashion and Textiles.
Then the synthetic fabric is shipped over 6,000 miles to Durban, where it’s sewn into the final product. Presumably, the faux furs will see years of use as ceremonial garments, but what about when they finally break down? According to Slate, “synthetic fibers take a really, really long time to break down—anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years, if estimates for plastic-bag degradation are anything to go by.
To be clear, this is better than killing endangered leopards, of course, but it’s important to remember the faux furs still come with a significant environmental footprint. It’s difficult to say whether encouraging new dependence on China and fossil fuels is a worthy trade off in the long run. Some might say that animal rights should trump religious rights, and that perhaps Panthera’s energy would have been better spent helping Shemba leaders phase out the wearing of any fur, faux or otherwise.
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