A Cultural Reverence for Wild Cats
Communities across Africa have a proud tradition of using wild cat skins as regalia for cultural and religious ceremonies. The use of these skins frequently stems from a deep respect for these animals as symbols of power, prestige, courage, grace, stealth and fierceness. However, this reverence has led to unintended consequences on wild cat populations. With growing human populations, increasing demand for furs and dwindling leopard populations, what was once a sustainable practice for ceremonial purposes has become unsustainable. The adoption of Heritage Furs (synthetic furs) allows these vibrant cultural and religious ceremonies to continue for many years into the future with the same beauty of the authentic furs but without the threat to wildlife populations.
After discovering that followers of the Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni, commonly known as the Shembe Church, 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.
The Shembe traditionally wore a real leopard skin amambatha in their ceremony called the Mgidi, wherein men dance in a prayer. Now, nearly 50 percent of garments worn during the Mgidi are Heritage Furs, thanks to the support of 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, preserving the Church’s traditions and rituals, while helping protect thousands of wild leopards.
“Our groundbreaking “Furs for Life” program is a conservation demand-reduction endeavor that has likely saved more big cats than any other of its kind while simultaneously helping preserve rich cultural-religious traditions.”
Tom Kaplan, Ph.D.
Co-founder and former Executive Chair Chair, the Global Alliance for Wild Cats
Preserving Tradition in the Kuomboka and Kufuluhela Ceremonies
The Lozi People in western Zambia wear a mix of leopard and serval skin Lipatelo skirts and lion mane Mishukwe head gear while paddling their Litunga (King) and Queens on the Barotse flood plains during the annual Kuomboka and Kufuluhela events and other traditional ceremonies.
In 2017, the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE; leaders of the Lozi People) requested that Panthera create a synthetic “Heritage Fur” to replace the use of authentic animal skins in a bid to protect wild cat populations and preserve their rich cultural traditions. Since the establishment of the close partnership, Panthera has donated approximately 1350 Heritage Furs to the BRE so that the paddlers chosen to participate in the ceremonies no longer illegally hunt or purchase authentic skins from traditional hunters and traders. The donated Heritage Furs are currently stored on the BRE royal grounds and are distributed to the selected participants before the ceremonies and then reclaimed and taken back to storage, thus ensuring every paddler has access to a Heritage Fur, extending the longevity of the garments and enhancing the sustainability of the initiative.
With conservation at the heart of the Lozi people this solution simultaneously protects wildlife whilst maintaining Cultural Pride. Since the launch of the project, the Heritage Furs have received overwhelming support from the leadership of BRE and the broader Lozi community and during the 2022 Kuomboka over 70% of paddlers on the Litunga’s royal barge were wearing Heritage Furs.