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Zulu church helps combat poaching, embraces faux fur to protect leopards

DURBAN, South Africa--Carrying Zulu warrior shields and draped in leopard skins, the men of South Africa's Shembe Church move hypnotically as they go through the steps of a traditional religious ritual.

But the striking spotted pelts around the dancers' chests are slowly being swapped for synthetic faux fur — thanks to a pact between conservationists and church leaders.

Leopard skins are a symbol of pride and royalty in the Shembe religion, which was founded a century ago in the country's eastern KwaZulu-Natal region with roots in Christianity and Zulu customs.

However, with the big cat populations threatened by loss of habitat and poaching, Shembe leaders have backed a cheaper and predator-friendly alternative that still upholds tradition.

“The leopard skin has got a significance because it shows power,” said Lizwi Ncwane, spokesman for the church officially known as the Nazareth Baptist Church.

“For the past four months now, we have been using fake skins because we are trying to bring awareness among our people,” he told AFP.

Boasting more than five million members, tens of thousands of faithful flock to a special service every January where older men move to the rhythmic sound of drumbeats and low trumpets.

“That is the way we worship God, we worship through prayers as well as dances,” said Ncwane.

But participants must wear the colorful ceremonial dress, which includes a loin cloth of monkey tails, a leopard skin belt, elaborate headgear with ostrich feathers and above all a cape of leopard skin slung across their naked chests.

“It represents being the king,” explained mineworker Sphiwe Cele, who says he paid 4,500 rand (US$412) for his legally-hunted authentic leopard skin — a fortune for the average South African.

“Of course we are not the king of the Zulu, but Shembe said we are the kings of our homes, so we must wear this today when we go to the traditional gathering,” he added.

In a country where leopard-hunting permits are only affordable for the very rich or foreign tourists, conservation groups dispute that the trophies worn at Shembe gatherings are legal.

'Totally illegal'

“This is the biggest display of illegal wildlife contraband on earth,” said Guy Balme, Africa leopard program director with U.S.-based conservation group Panthera.

“Everything you see here is totally illegal,” he said at one of the dances as music rang out in the background.

Most of the skins come from poachers in South Africa and neighboring Mozambique, Zimbabwe and nearby Malawi, he said.

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High-wire walker sets sights on Georgia gorge
A young member of the Shembe Church (Nazareth Baptist Church), a traditionalist Zulu church, wears a fake leopard skin in Durban, South Africa on Jan. 26.

(AFP)

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