High-quality imitation leopard skins will be given to members of the Shembe community in South Africa to use in their traditional ceremonies in an innovative project to protect the endangered big cat.
Panthera, a US-based conservation organisation, has partnered with logistics company DHL to ship the faux furs to Africa, DHL said in a statement on Wednesday. DHL will ship the imitation skins from manufacturers in China to South Africa on a pro bono basis.
Leopard skins have become customary ceremonial attire worn by the more than 5-million members of the Shembe church, DHL's Anita Gupta said.
The skins - or amambatha as they are known locally - were used as ceremonial and religious dress by Zulu royalty and chiefs, symbolising beauty, power and prestige. They have become popular among male Shembe members, with more than 1 000 skins being worn at a single gathering.
"Although many skins are old and are passed down from generation to generation, many new ones are a result of poaching, leading to shrinking leopard numbers," Gupta said.
About 2 000 imitation leopard traditional shoulder capes have already been shipped by DHL for the project.
Panthera is working with Shembe leadership to educate its members about the leopard crisis across southern Africa. It says it has partnered with digital designers and clothing companies to create a "high-quality, affordable faux leopard skin" for use in ceremonies.
"The Shembe have shown they are willing to embrace the use of our high-quality alternatives to real leopard skin - that translates to 1 000 leopards saved from poachers," said Luke Hunter, the president of Panthera.
Lizwi Ncwane, a Shembe elder and legal advisor, is quoted as saying: "As a leader of the Shembe community, I have seen firsthand how receptive my community is to using these fake skins. We're grateful that Panthera has worked with us in finding a solution that interweaves the conservation of leopards with the customs of the Shembe."
- DHL and SAinfo reporter