Panthera’s Tristan Dickerson and staff hold a synthetic Heritage Fur in South Africa before distribution to Shembe followers

After Tristan Dickerson watched thousands wearing capes made of authentic leopard skin, an idea to create synthetic fur alternatives would change the lives of leopard populations forever. Now, Furs for Life is celebrating 11 years of impact!


Africa (28 April 2024) – When Tristan Dickerson witnessed thousands of Shembe Church followers dance with capes made of authentic leopard skins, an idea for impact was sparked. Considering how many leopards’ lives were likely being impacted in South Africa—he estimated that up to 15 000 leopard furs were in use during Shembe religious gatherings when only 5000 leopards existed in the country—Tristan began wondering if there weren’t fur alternatives that could preserve the Church’s ritual proceedings and the lives of leopards.

11 years on, and that idea is a fully-fledged force of sustainability dubbed The Furs for Life program (FFL) with Panthera. During its time, the program has supplied over 19000 synthetic leopard fur alternatives (also known as Heritage Furs) across three partnerships with an estimated reach of 6 million individuals in Southern Africa!

Having spent a decade coordinating an intensive leopard monitoring and conservation program through his work with Panthera (the global wildcat conservation organisation), Tristan has dedicated a lot of his life to saving the most persecuted wild cat.

However, coming from an informed place and with good intentions was only half the story for the South African, as the road to gaining trust in communities and engendering a change in tightly woven cultural customs was far from easy.

But, armed with resilience, Tristan has since made incredible friendship with many—from the wives of poachers eager to lure their husbands away from illegal hunting, to Kings and Queens of Southern African Royal Establishments.

The Shembe people – Credit: Roger Jardine/Panthera.

Community Success

When FFL had success with the Shembe, its model was then introduced in Zambia at the request of the Barotse Royal Establishment of the Lozi people. Now, they don skirts made of synthetic leopard and serval fur, as well as berets trimmed with synthetic lion fur for traditional ceremonies!

Thanks to the use of alternative fur, a 50% reduction in authentic leopard fur use has been achieved. This in turn has potentially prevented thousands of leopard deaths, while helping stabilise some populations of leopards, and even being boosted in Southern Africa.

Looking Ahead

A recent partnership between Panthera and South Africa’s African Congregational Church (ACC) has seen followers now wear hats made of synthetic leopard fur.

Plans are also on the cards to develop synthetic furs for cheetahs, servals and genet (not of the felid family).

Beyond the wild cats, the initiative also gives back to the community with 49 women from the Shembe, Lozi and ACC communities including the poachers’ wives, having been given classes, sewing machines and material to produce their own garments.

Photo Credit: Christian Sperka

Sources: Supplied—Amanda Whalen 
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About the Author

Ashleigh Nefdt is a writer for Good Things Guy.

Ashleigh's favourite stories have always seen the hidden hero (without the cape) come to the rescue. As a journalist, her labour of love is finding those everyday heroes and spotlighting their spark - especially those empowering women, social upliftment movers, sustainability shakers and creatives with hearts of gold. When she's not working on a story, she's dedicated to her canvas or appreciating Mother Nature.

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