The Leopards of Lord Shembe

This diary entry took place at Mount Ebuhleni

This is a story of hope.

The leopard was close. We had been on foot for two hours trying to unravel her clues, and these tracks that descended into the riverbed had that silky fresh shine that made the hairs stand up on my neck and my eyes dart into every shadow expectantly.  A monarch butterfly sailed over one of her pug marks, its magnetic hues momentarily stealing my attention as I watched it dance along the airwaves into a grove of ebony trees. When I realized my mistake and looked forward again my eyes were met by those of the leopardess, not thirty metres ahead, watching me through the grass blades. An intoxicating surge of blood ran from my gut to my head, my skin pulsed with electricity. Her presence was deeply powerful and beautifully infectious. What she did next, though, was why this moment was so clearly etched on my mind. She didn't run. She didn't growl. She didn't even flick her tail. She put her head back on her paws,  closed her eyes, and rested. A completely wild leopard showing trust in a human.

The blast of a trumpet pulled me from my daydream. Perhaps something in my mind had decided to torture me, or perhaps it was simply trying to distract me from my impending claustrophobia. I was submerged in a sea of  Shembe worshippers. The road to Mount Ebuhleni was going to be a challenge for me, but not due to its gradient, which was gentle. It was the width of two cars, and there were probably 100 000 of us ascending its holy peak. I don't do well in closed spaces, and we were not moving.

A man squeezed passed me with a leopard draped over his back and for a moment everything in my world went still.  A female, judging by the size of her skin and her faded rosettes. I saw the holes through which her amber eyes had once watched the world. Be numb, I told myself. There was no ways I was going to tell this story if I let my emotions get in the way. I was here to photograph leopards. Dead leopards.

I managed to pull my eyes from the coat. We were moving again. The trumpets, elongated metal vuvuzela-like imbomus, blared louder, and together with the drums a powerful pulsating drone summoned us to the top of the holy mountain, pulling us upwards with hypnotic energy.

As we reached the prayer grounds at the top and the crowds mercifully fanned out I aimed straight for the highest point. I wanted to get the shock of my first view out of the way so that I could focus on taking pictures. Culturally the scene in front of me was breath-taking. What at first stuck me as choatic frenzy was actually a well-organized mega-assembly. There were the groups of young men singing chants in their grey skirts and plinth helmets. The older ladies with ornate purple dresses looked on regally and the young women in their cloth skirts and beaded necklaces rhythmically hoisted black umbrellas.  And then there were the Shembe men. Proud and strong, their chiseled warrior faces sternly concentrating on the timing of their dance, raising their shields and planting their feet in clouds of dust. Photos of the Lord Shembe hung from their necks. Cow hides draped around their wastes. Springbok amulets were strapped on their arms. Brightly coloured ostrich plumes rose from their head dresses. And somewhere close to 700 leopard skins lay on their shoulders.

After years of spending intimate moments with these great cats on an almost daily basis felt like I was going to throw up my heart. Waves of questions flooded my mind. How was it possible to even hunt this many leopard? This gathering was only small percentage of the total many more skins were there? This is an animal considered by the IUCN to be near-threatened, a cat protected by local and international law. Where were the police? Figures indicate that between 300 to 600 of these endangered cats are left in the province. That means there are roughly ten times more rhinos in Kwa-Zulu Natal than there are leopards. What if there were 700 rhino horns here?  Does the fact that President Zuma owns a leopard skin (or skins) have anything to do with this?  It always helps to have friends in high places. I remember reading in the news about skin trader Mlungu Ngubane who recently got off scot-free after being caught with 150 leopard skins. Take a moment to let that sink in.

There were other animals here too: servals, cheetah, and thousands of genet tails adorned the waists of the men. But who was I, an outsider, to judge their cultural practices? Perhaps I would show the same indifference myself if I'd been wearing a leopard skin since the age of 6? I needed to understand this. So I went to speak to the tribesmen.

There was a great sense of community in the gathering. The Shembe, a religious sect of the AmaZulu,  were warm and welcoming, and many were happy to share their customs. I met an engineer that had traveled all the way from Pretoria. I asked him about the leopard skin on his back: he said he had bought it locally for R3000. I asked him if he'd ever been to the Kruger Park. “Oh yes,” he replied “I go there many times a year”.

I couldn't help myself. “Have you ever seen a leopard there?”

“Leopards, lions, many animals,” was his response, clearly not putting the two together. Clearly not realizing the cuts on his garment could in all likelihood have been from a wire that spent three days strangling the life out of a mother leopard while her cubs starved to death in her den.

R3000 for a leopard skin. I have often wondered about the economic value of a live leopard. The leopard I thought of earlier was referred to by the guides at Londolozi as the 3:4 female (due to her characteristic spot pattern) or Kokwaan (Shangaan for grandmother, a term of respect). She was possibly one of the most photographed leopards of all time. Her relaxed presence in front of safari vehicles meant that people from all over the world delighted in sharing the secrets of her seventeen years of life, and  would come back annually hoping to catch a glimpse of her and her lineage. With them they brought dollars that provided employment, schools, clinics and well-being for hundreds of local people. A symbiotic partnership between man and animal.

Yet most Shembe do not live alongside wilderness areas, and may never know the rewards of this relationship. We face the same problem with the rhino horn trade in the Far East: the seeming futility of trying to change a cultural perception. Leopards once fell under the protection of the Zulu King, their skins revered by the masses, but worn exclusively by members of the Zulu Royal House. With a congregation numbering around five million and growing, and with every Shembe man aspiring to own a leopard skin, is there any hope for this iconic cat species?


There is always hope, and as it so often does, it comes in the form of individuals. Three young men  (Greg Lomas, Colwyn Thomas and Panthera leopard conservationist Tristan Dickerson), under the banner of Furs for Life, are trying a different approach. After noticing that some of the leopard skins at the gathering were poorly produced imitations they have dedicated much of the last two years to the creation of high quality fake leopard skins and to the subsequent negotiating for the church to sell them to the congregation in order to alleviate the pressure on the leopards. Their approach has not been to involve the police or conservation authorities, but to provide the Shembe with a respectful alternative that caters to their traditional needs while allowing them to invest in the future of the big cat they revere. The furs are sold to the church for roughly the same price as the current fakes but far superior in their quality and representation of a real leopard. The price has been set low at almost no profit in order for real leopard skin sales to be reduced.

The other heroes in this story are the forward thinking elders of the Shembe who have stood up bravely against pressure from tradition and many of their peers to give Furs for Life permission to provide the fake skins to the church.

The world is changing, and some cultures are changing with it. The Fanalei and Walande tribes of the Solomon Islands have recently stopped their traditional dolphin hunts in response to the decrease in these aquatic mammals. Masai warriors who traditionally hunted lions as a right of passage now bravely follow them in order to minimize conflict with other tribesmen.  Will the Shembe be the guardians the leopards so badly need?

Your Holiness Lord Shembe. if you are reading this, I beg you help these animals. Free them from snares. Free them from poison. Free them from persecution and allow them to roam free for the sake of our children's children.  The fate of Southern Africa's leopards lies in your hands.

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