Out-of-the-box ploy to help end SA’s leopard skin trade

2016-06-22 11:00
A screenshot from the South African documentary To Skin a Cat shows leopard researcher Tristan Dickerson designing synthetic leopard skins in an attempt to stop the leopard skin trade.

A screenshot from the South African documentary To Skin a Cat shows leopard researcher Tristan Dickerson designing synthetic leopard skins in an attempt to stop the leopard skin trade. (To skin a cat )

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Pietermaritzburg - There is some positive news to come out of the six-year-long mission to end the leopard skin trade in South Africa and halt the alarming decline in the ­leopard population.

With the leopard population in the country diminishing, thousands of skins were being sold to Shembe Church members who were unaware of the consequences of buying them.

The Shembe Church, an African initiated church which combines traditional Zulu culture with Christianity, saw some of its members saving up to R5 000 to buy the valued leopard skin to wear during gatherings.

A team of filmmakers, a leopard researcher and a host of organisations documented the process of attempting to slow the trade in leopard skins and one day end it in a breathtaking documentary called To Skin a Cat.

The film premiered at the Elizabeth Sneddon in Durban this past weekend to a full house.

To Skin a Cat documents the six-year-journey of leopard researcher Tristan Dickerson and documentary film team Greg Lomas and Colwyn Thomas in finding a solution that could end the leopard skin trade for good. Dickerson, with Lomas and Thomas, after numerous trials and errors produced a synthetic fur that looked and felt extremely similar to an authentic leopard skin.

Dickerson realised however, that to get the synthetic furs to gain popularity over the authentic furs, talks had to be held and relationships built with the church and its leader.

After six years, 13 000 fake furs have been distributed at Shembe gatherings with another few thousand to be distributed in the next couple of months.

“At a Shembe gathering earlier this year, we found that 40% of the furs worn were the fake furs we had produced,” said Dickerson.

“At other gatherings it has been 50/50, which is amazing to see.”

Dickerson said that at first, they had intended on selling the fake furs, but with the funding of the Peace Parks Foundation decided the furs should be freely distributed.

Dickerson said while it was only the start, the project had shown progress and with the help of the Shembe Church, showed promise of the trade becoming less profitable and one day, ending.

“It has been a long journey but the Shembes are the real heroes of the story,” said Lomas.

“We are all in this together to save the leopards,” he said.

• chelsea.pieterse@witness.co.za

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  skin

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