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  • Jamie Thom

Fur for Life Leopard Project

This past weekend, my Leopard Program colleagues, Dr. Guy Balme and Gareth Whittington-Jones, and I joined thousands of congregants from the Nazareth Baptist Church (more commonly known as the Shembe Church) for their annual pilgrimage. The rapidly growing Shembe Church combines elements of Christianity and traditional Zulu beliefs and has millions of followers across South Africa as well as Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The annual pilgrimage from High Mountain to the Church’s eBuhleni headquarters near Durban, South Africa, attracts tens of thousands of followers from across the region.


A group of Shembe men wearing ceremonial garb, most of which is faux fur from our Furs for Life Leopard Project.

Though we were not present for the entire pilgrimage, we did participate in the last part of the walk. Since shoes are not permitted on the holy grounds, our feet were searing from the blistering hot road by the time we arrived at eBuhleni—but we hardly noticed. We counted over 1,200 male Shembe dancers dressed in customary ceremonial attire: shields, headgear with ostrich feathers and leopard skin shoulder capes (known as amambatha) intended to evoke the grace and power of the leopard. We were thrilled to discover that about half of the men present were not wearing the genuine leopard skins—instead, they wore high-quality faux replicas designed, made, and distributed by Panthera’s Furs for Life Leopard Project thanks to the Peace Parks Foundation and Cartier. In southern Africa, as many as 2,500 leopards are killed each year for their skins to supply a skin trade demand crossing several cultures and religions. With fewer than 5,000 leopards remaining in South Africa, this illegal killing poses a significant threat to their survival. Launched in 2013, Panthera’s Furs for Life Leopard Project aims to save leopards by collaborating with local religious groups like the Shembe while also being respectful of traditional cultures and practices.


Panthera’s Furs For Life program manager and director discussing how to improve the design with a Shembe elder.

The Shembe religion is rooted in the conservation of land, water, plants and animals, so they welcomed the opportunity to work with us to help save the powerful big cats they revere. Thanks to the support of Shembe leaders, more and more church members are using faux replicas rather than real leopard skins. The Shembe have set a powerful precedent for people all over the world—and I hope they are the first of many.

Garrick & myself with Tristan at the premier of the Leopard documentary in Johannesburg, sampling his faux leopard fur.


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