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Saving the Leopard with Furs for Life

Leopards are native to 35 countries in Sub Saharan Africa. Their numbers are on the decline.

Leopards are native to 35 countries in Sub Saharan Africa. Their numbers are on the decline.

It has the widest range of all big cats in the world and was once ubiquitous throughout much of Africa and Eurasia. But the leopard has fallen on hard times.

Native to 35 countries in Sub Saharan Africa, today the leopard has disappeared from almost 40 percent of this historic range. Why? Leopards are dying because of a loss of habitat as a result of human population expansion, killings by herders in retribution for livestock loss, unsustainable legal trophy hunting and poaching for their skins and body parts.

Despite this, leopards haven’t received much attention in the wildlife conservation world. Aid for Africa member Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization focused on 36 species, including the imperiled African lion, cheetah, and leopard, is out to change that through a multifaceted approach focused on research, outreach and solutions for leopard conservation.

One effort is Panthera’s Furs for Life Leopard Project.

The leopard, an emblematic species of Africa, is revered for its beautiful spotted coat. Panthera reports that leopard skins are in increasing demand among members of South Africa’s Shembe Baptist Church, whose followers wear spotted cat fur during religious celebrations. Although trade in leopard skins is illegal, this cultural practice is reducing South Africa’s leopard populations.

Panthera has helped create fake leopard fur capes to be used in Shembe religious events.

Panthera has helped create fake leopard fur capes, pictured here, to be used in Shembe religious events.

Panthera’s Leopard Program Coordinator Tristan Dickerson estimates that nearly 1,000 leopard skins are either worn or sold at every major Shembe gathering. However, the large number of fake leopard skins, including impala skins and other pelts painted with spots, gave him reason for hope.

Panthera collaborated with digital designers and clothing companies to create a cape made from high-quality, realistic fake leopard fur. Panthera and its partners are working with church leaders to encourage their members to use the sustainable fake fur capes at religious ceremonies. Some 6,000 fake leopard furs have been donated to Shembe members throughout South Africa. Dickerson and his team hope to deliver approximately 18,000 fake furs by the end of 2017.

Everyone is optimistic, including Panthera President Luke Hunter, “The Furs for Life Leopard Project has provided a highly innovative solution to one of the gravest threats facing leopards in southern Africa. Panthera identified this emerging threat through its long-term research in the KwaZulu-Natal province, and within a few years, we’ve identified a real solution. . .”

To raise awareness of the plight of the leopard, Panthera has launched the #ifakeit movement with international superstar Shania Twain. Fans of Shania and leopards are coming together through social media to help rescue the once ubiquitous wild leopard from its hard times.