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EBUHLENI, South Africa – 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, seen as symbols of power because of the predator's grace, stealth and lethality. In fact, leopards are suffering the same pressures as many other wildlife species on a continent with a rapidly growing human population, their numbers diminished by habitat loss, illegal hunting for their skins and other factors.
"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 ones, which were first handed out in large numbers by Panthera in 2013 after years of negotiations with Shembe leaders, some of whom were initially 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."
While the fake pelts have been distributed for free or a small levy, vendors on the route leading to the slope where the dance occurred were selling real leopard skins for about $370. Some dancers said they saved money by switching to the imitation skins, which are also more durable in the rain. The mock versions generally look shinier and neater than their real counterparts, which can look a bit tatty and often need to be replaced after about a decade.
Southern Africa is considered a relative stronghold for leopards compared to other parts of Africa, though Panthera estimates that as many as 2,500 leopards are killed annually for their skins in the region. The group says fewer than 5,000 leopards remain in South Africa.
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