Panthera and African Congregational Church Fuse Faith and Conservation to Save Leopards, Empower Local Women

A member of the African Congregational Church

March 3, 2024

Media contact: Susie Weller Sheppard, 347-446-9904, 

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Church attire made from authentic leopard fur to be replaced with thousands of synthetic alternatives to save leopard lives, offer livelihoods to women reliant on illegal wildlife trade

New York, NY – As part of a remarkable program fusing faith and conservation, Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, has joined forces with the one-million-member African Congregational Church (ACC) to expand the Furs for Life program (FFL) – a decade-long initiative to reduce the killing of wild leopards in southern Africa. Representing the third FFL partnership with a Church or Royal Establishment, the latest alliance will reduce demand for authentic leopard skins, save significant leopard lives and bring economic benefits to local women often income-dependent on the illegal wildlife trade.

The new initiative will replace the Church’s ceremonial regalia – hats traditionally made from authentic leopard fur – with a synthetic, longer-lasting and cheaper alternative known as “Heritage Fur.” One significant goal is 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. Thus far, Panthera has provided 20 sewing machines and tables, equipment and 280 hours of training to twenty women from the South Africa-based African Congregational Church to tailor thousands of Heritage Fur hats and other garments, including school uniforms, in high demand outside of the Church.

Panthera Furs for Life Project Coordinator, Tristan Dickerson, stated, “Having just attended my first African Congregational Church service, I was delighted to see many early-adopter women celebrants begin to don our synthetic Heritage Fur hats in a sea of authentic leopard furs. We are particularly thrilled to partner with a women-led Church on an initiative that empowers local women to contribute financially to their family and community, as well as to our broader leopard conservation efforts. It’s a win-win-win. Eventually, we hope to transition the initiative wholly to the community itself.”

Furs for Life works with digital designers in Africa to design hyperrealistic patterns that blur the line between authentic and artificial, echoing this year’s March 3rd World Wildlife Day theme of connecting people and the planet through digital innovation in wildlife conservation. A direct replication of nature rather than a graphic design, the Heritage Fur pattern is based on digitized scans of authentic leopard skins.

African Congregational Church President Rt. Rev. N.S. Hlomuka stated, “We are aware that the growing human population and the growing numbers of our Church members could have a negative impact on leopard numbers. Our partnership with Panthera allows us to keep the tradition and beauty of leopard skins, all the while saving the leopards that God created.”

Rev. Hlomuka continued, “The project is also a dream come true for women in the church as most of them are unemployed and some are single parents; the training offered by Panthera has uplifted them and put bread on their table.”

A decade ago, Panthera scientists discovered that while fewer than 5,000 leopards existed in South Africa, at least 800 of them were being killed annually for their fur in the country. Panthera documented that as many as 15,000 illegal leopard furs were being worn during religious gatherings in southern Africa, with those donning furs believed to take on the leopard’s attributes.

In response, the Furs for Life program was created and has since supplied nearly 20,000 synthetic leopard fur capes to the Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni (Shembe Church) for use in religious gatherings. This has led to a 50 percent reduction in authentic leopard fur use which, in turn, potentially prevented thousands of leopard deaths. In addition, some wild leopard populations have stabilized or increased in the region, all while promoting a culturally sensitive conservation solution supported by Shembe leaders. This March, Shembe followers will also receive tailoring training for Heritage Furs and other garments.

Dickerson added, “The Furs for Life model is tantamount to effecting cultural and behavioral change, which can require years of trust-building in close-knit communities. Motivated by the success of the Shembe Church initiative, we work closely with cultural-religious leaders, Community Resource Boards and Village Action Groups to ensure that our program is culturally sensitive, conservation-minded and ultimately gives back to those living alongside leopards.”

Further north, the second Furs for Life partnership was launched in 2019 with the Barotse Royal Establishment of the Lozi people in western Zambia. In less than five years, over 70 percent of Lozi community members now don synthetic Heritage Fur skirts and hats – replacing the use of authentic leopard, serval and lion furs. Panthera has also partnered with women from Lozi families who are associated with the illegal wildlife trade to train them in tailoring Heritage Furs. To date, 16 women have received training and have signed lucrative uniform tailoring contracts with local schools, producing over 500 school uniforms in two months – a source of significant supplemental income that can help lift families out of poverty and reduce their reliance on trading in illicit wildlife products.

Panthera is actively working with other willing communities in southern Africa to expand the FFL concept to user groups that might be negatively impacting leopard populations and are losing their traditional practices due to difficulties in acquiring or affording furs. FFL has been funded by the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, Cartier for Nature Philanthropy, the Royal Commission for AlUla and Peace Parks Foundation.

About Panthera
Panthera, founded in 2006, is devoted to preserving wild cats and their critical role in the world’s ecosystems. Panthera’s team of leading biologists, law enforcement experts, and wild cat advocates develop innovative strategies based on the best available science to protect cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards, tigers, and the 33 small cat species and their vast landscapes. In 39 countries around the world, Panthera works with a wide variety of stakeholders to reduce or eliminate the most pressing threats to wild cats—securing their future, and ours. Visit