The spotted coats of leopards are in demand, bringing high prices in the illegal fur trade. The solution? The Furs for Life project, which convinces consumers to choose faux leopard skin. Before long an international country superstar and a luxury brand came on board to show their support for our beautiful big cats. By Arnold Ras

When Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) and Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organisation, decided to join hands to protect leopards and specifically their skin, the Furs for Life Project was born – an initiative that recognises traditional and cultural values of people whilst at the same time allowing for a space for wild animals.

First on the agenda was the Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church – leopard skins are coveted by members of the church who wear the furs during religious celebrations and ceremonies. A collaboration between Panthera, PPF and Shembe Church leaders was formed and soon an alternative to real furs was introduced: high-quality, realistic faux leopard skin capes known as an amambatha. “The leaders of the Shembe Church were open and receptive to finding solutions together to also address the concerns that they had about the future of the leopard,” says Werner Myburgh, CEO of Peace Parks Foundation.

Leopards are being killed for their skins, but the Furs for Life Project has made big strides in counter-acting this demand. Picture by Laila Bahaa-el-din

Leopards are being killed for their skins, but the Furs for Life Project has made big strides in counter-acting this demand. Picture by Laila Bahaa-el-din

According to Myburgh, conservation without funding “is merely a conversation”. PPF presented the project’s concept to the high-end brand Cartier for financial support. “Cartier uses the leopard as part of their brand and have expressed a commitment to provide support to efforts to conserve the leopard in its natural habitat. Cartier recognised the merits of this initiative and immediately came on board with very generous financial support to produce fake leopard furs.”

Currently more than 5,000 faux leopard capes have already been donated in South Africa and PPF, Panthera and Cartier are aiming at distributing at least another 13,000 more capes before the end of 2017.

Steve Winter / PHINDA

Young members of the Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church wearing the fake leopard skin capes. Picture by Steve Winter, Panthera

“Wildlife crime is the greatest challenge that affects all our conservation efforts. The challenge is to continuously remain adaptable and use a multi-pronged approach to counter this. Our ultimate hope is that the consumer realise and understand that if they do not stop buying these products, the demise and extinction of many of these high value species is inevitable.”

By conserving cats, we are also conserving large, functioning ecosystems. – Dr Guy Balme

Looking after wild cats

For Panthera’s Leopard Program Director, Dr Guy Balme, the goal behind Panthera was to bring together the world’s leading wild cat experts and biologists to develop and implement rigorous, science-based conservation strategies for wild cats and their ecosystems. “The international trade of leopard skin is illegal, but that doesn’t stop poachers from killing leopards and selling their skins and other body parts on the illegal wildlife market, which is estimated to generate $20 billion annually.”

Balme says wild cats occupy a third of the earth’s terrestrial surface and act as landscape guardians – their presence is indicative of healthy, intact ecosystems. “By conserving cats, we are also conserving these large, functioning ecosystems, which are home to thousands of species of plants and animals and necessary for all life – including ours. While our efforts are focused on saving wild cats, the impacts go far beyond.”

Fashion and social media

“For centuries, leopards have served as an inspiration for fashion. But most of the people who wear and love faux leopard print have no idea that leopards are the most persecuted big cat on Earth – and their iconic spots are a huge factor,” explains Balme.

With the impact of social media in mind, a campaign using the hashtag #IFakeIt was launched to encourage individuals around the world to help spread awareness by “faking it” for leopards. “The first goal of the #IFakeIt movement is to get 18,000 unique mentions on social media – one for every donated cape – as a thank you to everyone who is willing to fake it in support of leopards. Our second goal is to raise $300,000 for the creation of at least 5,000 new fake leopard skins and to support other conservation activities to protect leopards across their range.”

Conservation and celebrities

Furs for life project-Leopard conservation-Court Luke Hunter-Panthera

Did you know that leopards are the most persecuted big cat on earth? Picture by Luke Hunter, Panthera

Country superstar Shania Twain is known for her love of faux leopard print and was “an obvious choice for this campaign”. “She was eager to help spread the word about what’s happening to leopards in the wild. Her role as a celebrity provides Shania with the ability to reach a wide audience and spread further awareness about the future of wild leopards,” says Balme.