'Hundreds of leopards being slaughtered for church's outfits'
Amid rage over new hunting quota, experts say Shembe church is getting more than its fur share of leopard skins
The decision to allow seven leopards to be shot by trophy hunters has raised the ire of several wildlife conservation groups, but wildlife experts say this may be a drop in the ocean compared with the number killed to clothe members of the Shembe church.
Last month, Environment Minister Edna Molewa lifted a two-year moratorium on leopard hunts and said her department would approve seven permits nationwide during 2018 – five in Limpopo and two in KwaZulu-Natal.
Her decision was criticised by wildlife biologist Maxine Gaines, Bool Smuts of the Landmark Foundation and several others, yet this new quota pales in comparison to the scale of slaughter to supply the traditional skin and medicine trade.
In a report presented in Geneva six weeks ago, the Department of Environmental Affairs said researchers estimated that as many as 1,500 to 2,500 leopards were killed illegally every year to meet the demand for skins by the Nazareth Baptist “Shembe” Church, which has an estimated five million members.
Leopards are difficult to count accurately, but current estimates suggest there are between 1,600 and 7,000 adults nationwide and that numbers are declining at a rate of nearly 8% every year.
The department’s researchers found: “Leopard skins are used in ceremonial wear by a number of cultural and religious groups in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland, most notably the Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church. Surveys undertaken at Shembe religious gatherings suggest that there are between 13,000 and 18,000 illegal leopard skins in circulation among church members.”
A separate report published by the UN Environment Programme in July 2016 says leopards are revered in many African cultures and their skins were worn as a symbol of worship and prestige.
The scale of the problem was highlighted during the trial of Mlungu Ngubane, a trader linked to supplying leopard skins to Zulu royalty and Shembe followers. Police searched his home near Jozini in 2004 and found 58 leopard skins being fashioned into traditional regalia. He got off with a suspended jail sentence and short stint of community service.
Police raided his home again in August 2008 and allegedly found another 92 leopard skins. His trial was delayed several times and he walked off scot-free in 2011 when the magistrate accepted legal arguments that the police did not have a valid warrant to search his home.
In this bleak situation some hope has emerged from an innovative scheme by the New York-based Panthera foundation. The Furs For Life project kicked off about five years ago when Panthera began producing fake leopard fabrics designed to look like the real thing.
So far, Panthera has donated more than 18,000 fake furs to Shembe followers and there are plans to distribute another 4,000 this year with support from the watch-maker Cartier and the Peace Parks Foundation.
Panthera estimated that almost 50% of the worshippers seen at a recent Shembe religious ceremony were wearing the new fake fabrics.
The Nazarites Church of God faction, one of the smaller Shembe factions led by Reverend Mthembeni Mpanza, has embraced fake leopard skins. Church spokesperson Thabo Sambothi said: “We don’t use (real) leopard skins. We only use the Panthera skins because it is illegal to own leopard skins without a permit. We also know that the number of leopards is going down, and we would like them to survive.”
Thokozani Mncwabe, spokesperson for the larger Ebuhleni faction, did not respond to requests for comment.
Prince Thulani Zulu, a spokesperson for the Zulu Royal House, has also not responded to queries about traditional strictures to regulate the wearing of leopard skins.