Furs for Life

"Men dancing in faux leopard skin"
© Gareth Whittington-Jones / Panthera

A decade ago, with fewer than 5,000 leopards existing in South Africa, at least 800 of the country’s leopards were killed annually for their fur. To this day, these coveted coats are used in ceremonial regalia by cultural and religious groups that revere the species.

Furs for Life

The Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni (Shembe Church)

One such group is the Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni, commonly known as the Shembe Church. After discovering that Shembe followers were using as many as 15,000 leopard furs during religious gatherings, Panthera, in partnership with the leadership of the Shembe Church, initiated the Furs for Life program in 2013.

Working with the Shembe community and graphic designers, Panthera created high-quality and affordable synthetic leopard fur capes, known as Heritage Furs or amambatha.

Supported by Cartier for Nature Philanthropy, the Royal Commission for AlUla, and Peace Parks Foundation, the program has distributed more than 18,500 capes to the Shembe Church, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in authentic leopard fur use.

Heritage Furs have thus prevented thousands of leopard deaths and have even resulted in some wild leopard populations stabilizing or increasing in the region, all while promoting a culturally sensitive conservation solution supported by Shembe leaders.

Learn about the expansion of this initiative to Zambia through the Saving Spots project below.

Fusing Faith and Conservation: African Congregational Church

Panthera has partnered with the one-million-member African Congregational Church (ACC) in South Africa to replace the use of authentic leopard skin hats in ceremonial regalia with synthetic Heritage Furs. A significant program goal is also to provide an alternative source of income for women reliant on tailoring illegally sourced wildlife products and increase their skills training, including business management, that will enable independent operation of tailoring micro-enterprises. As of March 2024, Panthera has provided 20 sewing machines and tables, equipment and training to twenty women from the ACC to tailor thousands of Heritage Fur hats and other garments, including school uniforms. Learn more here.

Uniting Conservation and Fashion

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), that requires less energy to produce and generates lower emissions than nylon furs.

Kicking off the partnership, ECOPEL has provided enough fabric for the creation of 1,200 Heritage Fur capes by tailors in South Africa, ensuring that the Shembe community directly benefits from both employment opportunities and profits from future Heritage Fur sales.

Read more on this initiative in our press release.

Saving Spots

"Panthera Saving Spots"
© Gareth Whittington-jones / panthera

Building upon the Furs for Life program, in 2019, Panthera and the Barotse Royal Establishment of the Lozi people joined forces to launch Saving Spots — a conservation initiative in western Zambia that is preserving rich cultural traditions while protecting declining wild cat populations.

Every year, hundreds of Lozi community members participate in traditional ceremonies, most notably the Kuomboka Festival, a massive gathering on the Barotse Floodplains to escort His Majesty the Lozi King, or Litunga, between palaces by Royal barge. Traditionally, approximately 200 paddlers wear lipatelo, which are elaborate, full-length skirts made of leopard, serval and other animal furs, and lion-mane trimmed berets, known as mishukwe. At a recent gathering, in fact, more than 70 percent of participants wore synthetic Heritage Furs, replacing authentic leopard, serval and lion furs, and helping reduce illicit wild cat hunting across southern Africa.

Since 2019, with the launch of Saving Spots, the Barotse Royal Establishment has received over 750 Panthera-created synthetic leopard and serval fur lipatelo and 600 synthetic lion-mane mishukwe, which are replacing the use of authentic furs by paddlers and helping to reduce the hunting of hundreds of wild cats across southern Africa where the species are severely threatened.

The Heritage Furs were endorsed by His Majesty the Lozi King and His Royal Highness Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta and have received overwhelming support among the Lozi community, with the Litunga declaring that Heritage Furs would replace authentic wild cat skins at all future Lozi gatherings.

Beyond the Lozi community, the Saving Spots initiative, alongside rigorous counter-poaching operations and additional wildlife protection efforts, has contributed to encouraging increases, with leopard densities either stabilizing or showing strong increases in some areas of the Greater Kafue Ecosystem – trends moving in the right direction for the world’s most persecuted wild cat. Read more in our case study.

Through Saving Spots, Panthera also conducts an educational conservation outreach program in the region and a robust leopard monitoring program in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.