The beauty and allure of wild cats is a paradox. On one hand, it makes them powerful ambassadors for biodiversity conservation through public awareness and education initiatives. Leveraging the charismatic appeal of these iconic species, conservation organizations can highlight their roles as key indicators of ecosystem health, which also benefits their habitats and the other species they live alongside. On the other hand, admiration for wild cats has led humans to target them for their skin, teeth, bones and organs. In this month’s blog on Threats and Solutions, we’ll expand on the threat of the illegal wildlife trade to cat populations. Read on to learn more about how Panthera is unraveling the complex tiger body part trade, exploring illegal wildlife markets and partnering with the Shembe Church (Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni) in South Africa to reduce demand for wild cat parts.
Identifying a Major Tiger Poaching Hub
Tigers are the only big cat listed as Endangered by the IUCN, primarily due to decades of rampant trading on the illegal wildlife market. Panthera’s Tigers Forever program aims to increase tiger numbers at key sites across Tiger range by at least 50 percent over ten years working closely with partners and local communities, so mitigating the illegal wildlife trade is one of our top priorities. New research from Panthera and the Chinese Academy of Science has identified a major hub in the illicit poaching and trafficking of Endangered tigers, guiding our efforts to help address this issue at the source.
“Southeast Asia has been identified as ground zero for tiger poaching, but this study shows that tiger poaching still remains a significant threat to the species in other regions as well.”
Dr. Abishek Harihar
Study Co-Author and Panthera Tiger Program Director
According to a study led by Nasir Uddin, a former PhD fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Bangladesh plays a far more prominent role in the tiger trade than has previously been recognized as a source of poaching, a transit area and a destination for consumption. Supported by Panthera scientists, Dr. Uddin conducted an analysis of tiger seizure records and interviewed 163 individuals involved in the illegal tiger trade, including poachers, smugglers and traders in the country. This investigation focused on trafficking routes by land, sea, and air, with the first being the most common. The team pinpointed four primary source sites from which tigers were poached: the Sundarbans Forest spanning India and Bangladesh, the Kaziranga-Garampani landscape in India, the Northern Forest Complex in Myanmar and the Namdapha-Royal Manas tiger landscape across India and Bhutan. The study also identified key trade routes, source sites, processing and distribution centers, transit ports, unregulated border crossings and consumption centers for tiger poaching. In light of these findings and a list of twelve distinct problems associated with tiger poaching and trafficking, the authors recommend a Problem-Oriented approach that mitigates each trafficking problem individually.
Researching Demand in Wildlife Markets
Panthera partnered with the local wildlife authority/the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission of Ghana to explore the scale of the illegal trade in wild cat products within Ghana, gain an understanding of the species’ cultural significance and examine potential solutions to curb its illegality. Demand for wild cat parts has contributed to the decline in populations of Africa’s wild cats, including lions and leopards, which are both listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. In this region specifically, lions are classified as Critically Endangered. In a survey of 20 Ghanaian markets across 10 cities, the team found that 75 percent had wild cat parts for sale, despite legal protections under Ghana’s Wildlife Conservation Regulations. Products such as either full leopard and lion skins or parts of them (used as amulets or signs of protection), bones and other body parts are primarily used for cultural purposes and are typically purchased by a diverse consumer base, including wealthy individuals and people in high-risk jobs (who believe wild cat parts bring protection and strength).
The study revealed both the abundance of wild cat parts available — some market stalls had several full cat skins for sale — as well as the limitations of the Wildlife Trade Portal (an open-source database with wildlife seizure and incident data). According to the Portal, officials did not seize a single carnivore in Ghana in 2022. Thus, on-the-ground market surveys such as this one are essential. Fortunately, in July 2023, the Parliament of Ghana passed a bill that will enforce higher penalties and sanctions for wildlife crime offences. Legislation, paired with culturally sensitive behavior change campaigns (such as the one illustrated in the following section), have the opportunity to reduce demand for wild cats and thus improve protection.
Reducing Demand for Leopard Furs
Finally, Panthera’s Furs for Life program serves as an excellent case study of successful, measurable demand reduction. Ten years ago, the leopard population in South Africa was estimated to be fewer than 5,000, with at least 800 killed annually for their fur. Their coats are highly sought after for ceremonial regalia by various cultural and religious groups, including the Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni, also known as the Shembe Church. When it was revealed in 2013 that Shembe followers used up to 15,000 leopard furs during religious events, Panthera joined forces with Shembe Church leaders to initiate the Furs for Life program.
Collaborating with the Shembe community and graphic designers, Panthera developed an affordable, high-quality synthetic leopard fur, called Heritage Furs, which are now used to create the shoulder capes known as amambatha. The program, supported by Cartier for Nature Philanthropy, DEFRA-IWTCF, the Royal Commission for AlUla and Peace Parks Foundation, has supplied over 19000 capes to Shembe followers, which has reduced the number of authentic leopard skins used in traditional ceremonies by half. In 2023, Panthera and ECOPEL, an international faux fur textile manufacturer, joined forces to create a new collection of high-quality, bio-based Heritage Furs that provides a life-saving alternative to authentic leopard furs. The latest garments will incorporate KOBA, the first-ever bio-based fur textile (developed with vegan fashion designer Stella McCartney), which requires less energy to produce and generates lower emissions than nylon furs. ECOPEL is providing enough fabric for the creation of 1,200 Heritage Fur capes by tailors in South Africa, ensuring that the Shembe community directly benefits from employment opportunities and profits from future Heritage Fur sales.
This project also inspired Panthera’s award-winning Saving Spots Initiative, which collaborates with the Barotse Royal Establishment of the Lozi People of Western Zambia and other conservation partners to significantly reduce the number of authentic leopard, lion and serval skins used in ceremonial attire. During the Lozi People’s annual gathering in 2023, at least 70% of participants wore Heritage Furs. In 2023, this case study earned the coveted 2023 Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing.
Working Collaboratively to Reduce Demand
Panthera's conservation efforts against the illegal wild cat trade, such as unearthing Bangladesh as a poaching epicenter, highlighting the scale of illicit wildlife trade in Ghana and the transformative Furs for Life program showcase our multifaceted approach. Combining research, collaboration with local wildlife authorities and community engagement, we are setting the stage for long-term impact. Initiatives like Furs for Life demonstrate the power of culturally respectful, sustainable alternatives that reduce demand for wild cat parts. Together with our partners, including communities, government agencies and devoted conservationists such as yourself, we can turn the tide against exploitation of these irreplaceable creatures.