SUBSTITUTION: Conservationists survey the fake leopard skin, manufactured in Newcastle, that leopard expert Tristan Dickerson hopes to use to help to save the mammal from over-exploitation. Picture: TO SKIN A CAT

CONSERVATIONIST Tristan Dickerson hopes to produce his first fake leopard skin within months. If it is a good replica, Mr Dickerson believes it could help to save the leopard.

Leopards are described in SA's National Environmental Management Act as "vulnerable" in the southern African region: they face the risk of extinction in the medium term. Partly, this is because there is growing demand for leopard skins as accoutrements for sub-Saharan Africa's royalty, VIPs and the male adherents of the Shembe religion, which has 5-million followers and counting.

The Shembe - a Christian church that combines elements of Zulu culture and is just over a century old - has grown demand for leopard skins, but they are by no means the leopard's only, or largest, threat.

Research shows that, as with most species, habitat loss and degradation, prey depletion and killings by farmers who lose livestock are the major threats to the leopard's survival .

However, while Mr Dickerson, co-ordinator of the leopard programme at global charity Panthera, was researching leopards at &Beyond's Phinda private game reserve, he realised demand for leopard skins as religious and cultural attire, including from the Shembe, was adding to the cat's demise.

"I thought, if I can make a fake skin that's an affordable fake that's acceptable to them, then that will help..

"I would like to get the Shembe church involved in the development of the fake furs. The Shembe religion respects nature and it is due to this and their admiration of the aesthetics of a leopard skin that they wear them," he says.

But getting Shembe leadership buy-in for fake leopard is going to be a hard sell.

Shembe spokesman Enoch Mthembu says the church is not interested in faux fur. "We are not a fake church. God created human beings, nature, water, the sun, the sky . Shembe (the church's founder Isaiah Shembe) got messages from God himself. We can't change what God did."

Mr Mthembu says the skins used - not only leopard - hold symbolic meaning. He denies the church is adding to the leopard's decline, and puts dwindling numbers down to habitat destruction and the male leopard's "laziness" when it comes to breeding. Conservationists reject this, saying 30 years of research at &Beyond's Sabi Sand reserve shows no reduction in mating frequency or cub production.

Mr Dickerson believes he has a chance of persuading the average Shembe congregant to accept the faux fur, especially as many of the church's followers already sport fake leopard skins because they simply cannot afford the real deal.

"(It costs) between R6000 and R7000 for the shoulder garments, the armbands etcetera. People I have spoken to are embarrassed they don't have one. Basically I would be producing the equivalent of a fake Rolex - if it is (a) good (copy) it will solve the social thing," he says.

If SA loses its leopards, there will be consequences for the tourism sector, and for SA's biodiversity. Data on SA's estimated 2000- 7000 leopards is sketchy as they are elusive animals, and managing them is difficult, says Kelly Marnewick, Endangered Wildlife Trust carnivore programme manager.

Leopards are a tourism drawcard . Safaris constitute SA's competitive advantage in terms of global tourism, and the big cats often seal the deal, says SA Tourism chief marketing officer Roshene Singh.

Researcher Enrico di Minin of Kent University's Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology says a survey he conducted shows foreign tourists vote for leopards as their third most sought-after animal. For South Africans, it comes second.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust estimates more than 40% of the annual leopard "harvest" goes to illegal hunting. But Mr Dickerson is determined to pursue his "proactive instead of reactive" conservation effort.

blaines@bdfm.co.za