The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 October 2022
Saving Spots, a leopard protection project that has been running in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area since 2018, has had significant successes in working with local communities to save the species from extinction.
Leopards are high on, if not at the top of, the list of most sought-after sightings in game parks for tourists. They have captured the imagination of artists and provided inspiration and courage to warriors for centuries. They are well-known to be incredibly adaptable, having the largest range of all the big cat species spanning 63 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe. Despite this, they are arguably the most persecuted large cat in the world. They have vanished from at least 65% of their historic range in Africa and are listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Human activity is largely to blame. As leopards lose their habitat to development, they are increasingly killed in retaliation for the real and perceived threat these predators pose to livestock. According to Tristan Dickerson, a Panthera Furs for Life Consultant, “the leopard’s beautiful skin is a primary reason it is the world’s most persecuted big cat. And in my years of work to protect the leopards of southern Africa, I’ve realised the only way to stop the hunting of leopards for their skins is to address the problem head-on – with creativity and respect for local religion and culture.”
In 2013, Panthera, in partnership with the Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni, commonly known as the “Shembe Church”, started work on creating high-quality, affordable and sustainable fabric leopard skin capes, known as amambatha to replace authentic skins used by church followers in South Africa. Having up to 4 million members, it was estimated that the skins of between 1 500 and 2 500 leopards were required annually to meet the demand for new garments. A year later, the Furs for Life project was born when a partnership with Peace Parks Foundation, with funding support from Cartier, enabled activities to be significantly scaled up. Whereas early surveys indicated that one out of every eight garments would be an amambatha, by 2016, counts showed that approximately 50% of members were now wearing the sustainable capes at major gatherings. Additional research also indicates that the project has resulted in a significant reduction in the demand for authentic skins.
Building on the success of Furs for Life, a similar project was launched in partnership with Peace Parks with Cartier’s support, at the request of the Barotse Royal Establishment of the Lozi People in western Zambia. Here, wild cat skins are used to create ceremonial garb used during the annual Kuomboka Festival. During the festival, which takes place after the rains when the upper Zambezi River floods the Barotse plains, the Lozi people celebrate the move of the Litunga, king of the Lozi people, from his palace in the plains to higher ground. Here, the Lozi, like the Shembe, wear leopard, and other wild cat, skins as a symbol of prestige, power and grace.
His Royal Highness the Lozi Senior Chief, Inyambo Yeta, says, “The Barotse Royal Establishment was concerned that leopard and other cat populations are dwindling in Zambia, and as a conservation-oriented establishment, worked with Panthera to devise a culturally appropriate solution to reduce the impact on wild cats.”
Designed and endorsed by the Lozi King and Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta, fabric alternatives, known as Heritage Furs, were created to replace real leopard, serval and lion skins used in traditional festivals. The garments worn during the Kuomboka Festival consists of lipatelo skirts, traditionally made from leopard and serval skins, and mishukwe headdresses, which had previously been created from lion mane. The sustainable fabric alternatives were so well received that both the Lozi King as well as the Prime Minister of Barotseland declared that only synthetic skins may now be worn at Lozi gatherings.
Communities such as the Lozi or Shembe are very often not aware of how close the species they so revere are to vanishing from our planet. Wearing their skins is a symbol of strength and admiration, so when they realise species such as leopards are actually in real trouble, they willing to explore alternative solutions. As Panthera’s Community Engagement Officer Maswabi Lishandu, who works to promote leopard protection in Zambia, aptly states, “What would happen if the animals are no longer there? What will happen to the traditions?”
To this end, an awareness campaign was launched as part of Saving Spots and two educational videos that highlight the conservation challenges faced by leopards and other wild cats were produced. The Senior Chief shared these videos with several key Lozi influencers resulting in the productions being distributed throughout the Lozi community. This attracted the attention of both local and international media, which spread the message even further, creating widespread awareness for the conservation challenges leopards and other wild cats are facing.
Lubinda Nyawa, Council Chairperson for the Mwandi District Council says, “this is a learning process for our young generation. We are teaching them that they must preserve, one, their culture, and two, their natural resources.”
In addition to reducing the demand for wild cat furs, Saving Spots also focused on conducting extensive research to fill knowledge gaps related to the protection and management of leopard populations in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. In this, the team partnered with Zambian, Zimbabwean, and Namibian conservation authorities to establish a surveillance network that monitors the local leopard populations. Using camera traps and spoor count data, leopard density and occupancy was calculated at 40 sites across the three countries. “Information gained through these studies will enable conservation authorities in the region to make more informed decisions about leopard management policies and practices,” says Kathy Bergs, Peace Parks’ Chief Development Officer.
Whilst surveys were being undertaken, local conservation staff were also trained in field survey methods. “A key component of this work is building in-country capacity by training staff from the various wildlife management agencies to participate in the design, implementation and analyses of the surveys. Having staff trained to conduct the camera-trap surveys and track counts will reduce annual costs related to this work and build local expertise within conservation departments,” says Dr Guy Balme, Leopard Programme Director of Panthera.
Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saving Spots project has had significant impact in not only reducing the demand for wild cat skins, but also in providing government organisations with the information they need to effectively protect these species.