The ancient tradition is becoming increasingly unsustainable, however, with leopard populations dwindling significantly.
The ICUN Red List has classified leopards, or Panthera pardus, as vulnerable, and although southern Africa has the most dense recorded leopard populations, they have come under threat in recent years due to prey and habitat loss, as well as poaching.
In light of this, the department of environmental affairs (DEA) has lifted a historic ban on leopard hunting, which was in place since 2016.
According to Minister Edna Molewa, who made the announcement in August, the decision to lift the ban “is based on a review of available scientific information on the status of leopard populations in South Africa and an evidence-based assessment by the scientific authority”.
The new quota explains that five leopards will be allowed to be hunted in Limpopo, and two in KwaZulu-Natal. The leopards must be seven years or older, and must be male.
“It is important to note that the hunting of leopard is only undertaken in specified hunting zones where scientific evidence indicates stable leopard populations,” Molewa said.
The DEA has emphasised that applications to hunt leopards will be monitored on a national level, and that no hunting will take place in areas where leopard populations are dwindling.
There is another factor that may further threaten this majestic species – the continuous use of leopard skins by Shembe church members.
Because they are revered in the community, settling for the real thing is seen as an important part of the religious group’s traditions.
According to an article by TimesLIVE, hundreds of leopards are still being slaughtered for their skins, and for traditional medicinal purposes.
There is hope for an alternative within the Shembe community, however, in the form of global wild cat conservation group Panthera. They have come up with the idea to replace real leopard skins with convincing fake ones.
Twice a year, thousands of members of the Shembe’ Church gather in eBuhleni in KwaZulu-Natal in celebration of their religion. Among all this activity, Panthera make their way through the crowds carrying precious Amambatha; fabric replicas of capes worn by male members of the church that are sold to the congregation.
“We have a great relationship with the church. We’ve managed to gain their trust by proving that we respect and protect their traditions. After many years of building this relationship they allow us access to the holy grounds to do our research and distribute our Amambatha,” says Tristan Dickerson, the Furs for Life Leopard Programme manager, who first thought of introducing faux leopard skin to replace real ones at traditional ceremonies, such as the Shembe gathering.
“The leopard’s beautiful skin is the primary reason it is the world’s most persecuted big cat. And in my years of work to protect the leopards of southern Africa, I’ve realised the only way to stop the hunting of leopards for their skins is to address the problem head-on – with creativity and respect for local religion and culture,” Tristan says.
Since 2013, the Furs for Life project has distributed a total of 17 602 Amambatha.
It is unclear how lifting the ban on zero quota leopard hunting will affect already threatened numbers, in addition to the very little scientific data generated to track them. This is due to their illusive nature, making it extremely difficult to calculate exactly how quickly they are disappearing.
What is also unclear is how thousands of Shembe worshippers have access to leopard skins, as permits are required to hunt them.