When President Jacob Zuma gets his dance on, the stuff flying around his bosom is leopard skin. Its use is widespread in Zulu culture and especially adherents of the Shembe religion. Enter Panthera’s Furs For Life Leopard Project Coordinator Tristan Dickerson who realised that to save the leopard he needed the support of the Shembe.

“I noticed that a proportion of the animals that I was following were being killed by poachers for the illegal skin trade. Our focus then became to reduce the demand on leopard populations from the illegal skin trade, whilst conserving the culture of the Zulus. The core of the project is a high-accuracy and affordable fake fur that has been accepted by Zulu and Shembe elders and followers.”
It took three years, but Dickerson convinced Shembe leaders that the future regalia of their church was not to be found on real cats.

While cats aren’t big on showing affection (or watching documentaries), if leopards knew what Dickerson has done for them, he might get a dead mouse or impala on his doorstep every morning.

#BestAdvice:Put emotion aside and focus on the bigger picture
“My work has brought me into contact with people of very differing opinions to myself when it comes to leopards. Some want to kill them because they’re causing damage and some just want to kill them because it’s a “challenge” for them. Some of these meetings bring up all sorts of emotions and what I’ve learnt is that if these emotions are portrayed then not a lot can be achieved. The process of developing a fur and building relationships within the Shembe Church has taken over three years. The success comes with the manner in which we have introduces the fake furs. Not once have we fought with the church about the illegal use of leopard skins, nor have we tried to enforce the law at gatherings where 1 000 leopard skins can be seen. All along we have worked closely with the church in creating the best sustainable solution. During this process the biggest lesson I have learnt is to hear someone out. Take the time to fully understand each situation instead of making emotional decisions.”

The story of Dickerson and the Shembe’s journey towards conserving leopards (panthera.org) has been captured in a documentary To Skin A Cat.

*By Tudor Caradoc-Davies