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Conservationists design Fake Leopard Skins in South Africa to Save the Wild Animal

Conservationists hope to expand their fake skin campaign to other ethnic groups and African countries where the leopard is incorporated into ceremonial attire

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Members of the Shembe Church wearing leopard skins during their dance celebrations at eBuhleni, near Durban, South Africa, Jan 29, 2017.

At least 1,200 men in ceremonial attire danced at a mainly Zulu gathering in South Africa on Sunday, wearing a mix of hides of illegally hunted leopards and Chinese-made, spotted capes designed by conservationists to reduce demand for the real thing.

The phalanxes of dancers with shields, headgear of ostrich feathers and other regalia on Sunday evoked the proud traditions of one of South Africa’s main ethnic groups, as well as the piety of the participants, whose Shembe religious movement blends Christian and indigenous beliefs.

The event in Ebuhleni, north of the coastal city of Durban, also testified to an openness to change because roughly half the men were wearing fake leopard skins rather than genuine pelts, symbols of power because of the predator’s grace and lethality. In fact, leopards are vulnerable on a continent with a rapidly growing human population, their numbers diminished by habitat loss, illegal hunting for their skins and other factors.

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“It’s like abusing the animals if they’re hunted to get the real skin,” said 67-year-old Msoleni Manqele, who collected a manufactured copy of a leopard hide from a Shembe distribution office, which had in turn received a batch of fake pelts from the Panthera conservation group.

The white-bearded Manqele spoke in awe of the leopard, describing it as a “king of the jungle” that fights with its claws, teeth and hind legs. He said he knows leopards “personally” because he lives near a wildlife park, but acknowledged with a laugh: “I’m also scared of them.”

One dancer, Madoda Zungu, wore a real leopard skin but said he also had one of the fake samples, first handed out in large numbers by Panthera in 2013 after years of negotiations with Shembe leaders, some of whom were resistant to shaking up an old custom at the behest of outsiders.

“It’s very important to know where we are coming from. This symbolizes our tradition,” said Zungu, a municipal councilor. The leopard, he said, “is one of the animals that actually has got power in terms of the strength, in terms of thinking, in terms of doing and being a leader.”

Another man, Kholwali Nxumalo, said he had settled for a fake fur, but still hoped to buy a real one despite the expense.

While the replica pelts, called “amambatha,” have been distributed for free or a small levy, vendors near the dance site were selling real leopard skins for about $370, as well as the tails of monkeys, genets and serval cats worn by dancers, often around the waist. A few skins of cheetahs, another imperiled species, were also on display.

The imitation leopard skins, besides being a free or cheap alternative to the real item, are more durable in the rain. The mock versions generally look shinier and neater than their real counterparts, which need to be replaced after about a decade.

Learning about fashion was a challenge for Panthera’s “Furs for Life” project, which modeled imitations on a haul seized from a poacher and used a complex weave technology that wasn’t available in Africa.

“We took those skins, we photographed them, we then digitized them into the pixels that the machine needs and then we sent that into the factories to try and make it exactly as that original fur,” said Tristan Dickerson, the project manager. Dickerson also navigated the Shembe movement’s divisive politics, saying it was sometimes hard to tell “if you were speaking to the right faction.”

A permit is required to own a leopard skin, but authorities don’t crack down on Shembe dancers, mindful of cultural and religious sensitivities. Sunday’s pageantry followed a pilgrimage to a nearby mountain and is one of the group’s biggest occasions in the year, drawing followers from across South Africa, as well as neighboring Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

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An estimated 1,500 and 2,500 leopards are killed annually in the region to meet Shembe demand for skins, and some 15,000 real pelts are currently circulating in the religious community, according to Panthera. There are fewer than 5,000 leopards in South Africa, a relative stronghold of the animal on the continent.

Conservationists hope to expand their fake skin campaign to other ethnic groups and African countries where the leopard is incorporated into ceremonial attire. The Cartier jewelry brand and the South Africa-based Peace Parks Foundation are major funders of the Panthera program.

Decades ago, only Zulu aristocracy wore real leopard skins, but more people took up the custom, partly because of growing affluence. Lizwi Ncwane, a Shembe leader, wants the prestige of a real pelt to once again be the exclusive right of royalty, with followers using the copies.

“We want to conserve the leopard,” Ncwane said. “But at the very same time, we don’t want to push people away from their culture and customary practices.”(VOA)

Next Story

Widespread Stigma in South Africa, Despite Liberal Abortion Laws

At the clinic in Rustenburg, nurse Christa Tsomele has been performing abortions for a decade, and says she is proud of her work. She says she thinks some of her colleagues are contributing to the stigma of abortion -- and worse.

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Nurse Margorie Sithole, left, explains to Martina Mabe, center, and Flora Tshabalala, right, that abortion proceedures will only be performed during the week at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, Feb. 1, 1997. VOA

Twenty-six-year-old Precious, as she has asked us to call her to protect her identity, is 16 weeks pregnant. And so is her best friend, also by Precious’ boyfriend. That event turned her life upside down and brought her to the difficult decision to seek an abortion.

She lives in South Africa, where abortion is legal without justification and available through a nurse through 12 weeks of pregnancy, and legal up to 20 weeks, when done by a doctor and with justification.

But when she tried to get an abortion in her home city of Johannesburg, she ran into problems.

“When I went to register my name, I simply said, ‘I want to do abortion,’ and then they said, ‘No,’” she told VOA.

“And there were two nurses there, and the older one said, ‘Oh, thank God, I’m not trained for this,’ whilst the other one said, ‘no, you have to do back to your place and do it there.’ Then we had a disagreement there, as, like, I’m being against God and more stuff like that.”

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The company recently launched a campaign to try to reduce the stigma around abortion care. Pixabay

Hers is a common experience, and it’s what reproductive health advocates say drives 10,000 South African women to seek illegal, backstreet abortions every year.

The nation’s health department estimated that as many as 25 percent of maternal deaths from septic miscarriages were the result of such illegal abortions. More than half of all abortions in South Africa are unlicensed, despite the fact that half of all government hospitals offer the service for free.

Precious, who says she fears being judged by her neighbors, chose instead to travel to the dusty mining town of Rustenburg, where aid agency Doctors Without Borders has set up a free abortion clinic.

She said she was sure of her decision.

“I want this thing to be done as quickly as — because I can’t, I can’t take it anymore,” she said, her voice soft and wavering. “Because what I’m thinking is what happened. I can’t think of, like, of positive things. I think, if this thing failed, then what will I do? Should I end my life?”

‘We give women a choice’

Whitney Chinogwenya, head of marketing at South Africa’s best-known private abortion provider, Marie Stopes, says their clinics address a real need. The company recently launched a campaign to try to reduce the stigma around abortion care.

“When a woman wants to terminate a pregnancy, they’re going to terminate the pregnancy,” Chinogwenya told VOA from the organization’s office in downtown Johannesburg. “It doesn’t matter what methods they use, it doesn’t matter whether it’s legal, it’s illegal or it’s safe — they’re going to find a way to terminate the pregnancy.

“So what’s so great about South Africa and it being legal here is that there’s a safe place where you can get the procedure, where it’s not going to harm your body, where it’s not going to cause serious complications. And the most important thing is that we give women a choice.”

Another problem, she said, is that few women know that abortion is legal, and think backstreet providers — who advertise openly, but who are not licensed — are their only option.

Medical experts told VOA harrowing tales of the practices performed by such providers. Many don’t perform ultrasounds, don’t attempt to determine how far along the pregnancy is, don’t follow up after the procedure, give the wrong medication, give incorrect medical advice, or administer dangerous chemicals such as bleach and drain cleaner to desperate patients.

One particularly egregious provider, Chinogwenya told VOA, even tried to sexually assault a woman in his care.

‘Somebody has to do it’

Nurse Kgaladi Mphahlele, who heads the Doctors Without Borders project in Rustenburg, says demand for the clinic’s services is high. He estimates he performs as many as 100 first-trimester abortions each month, and says he sees women from as far away as Botswana, where abortion is illegal.

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South Africa, where abortion is legal without justification and available through a nurse through 12 weeks of pregnancy, and legal up to 20 weeks, when done by a doctor and with justification. VOA

His patients, he said, range in age from teenagers to 50-year-olds. He began his career delivering babies, but switched course, and says he’s proud of his decision.

“I look back, ‘why did I get myself into this profession?’” he said, adding that his friends and family were initially worried, but have since become supportive of his choice.

“I said, ‘I want to be a health care provider because I want to help the people.’ And then, you see a gap, and this is part of health care service, and if no one is doing it, somebody has to do it. And I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy working with people.”

At the clinic in Rustenburg, nurse Christa Tsomele has been performing abortions for a decade, and says she is proud of her work. She says she thinks some of her colleagues are contributing to the stigma of abortion — and worse.

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“If you can’t help a patient as a nurse, just refer the client to the relevant place so that the patient must get help,” she said. “Don’t just tell her, ‘no, I can’t do that, or ‘I can’t help you,’ and leave the patient stranded. That is why they end up going to the bogus [provider]. Because when you leave her stranded, now she decides to go out to the street, that is where she is going to die.”

It’s that, she says, that keeps her going, through the judgment, through the tears, through the difficult stories she hears day in and day out. Because, she says, whether people agree with her work or not, she’s saving women’s lives, and following the law. (VOA)