female leopard and cub showing affection

Leopard print belongs on leopards &Beyond continues to work with Panthera to help ensure that leopard print belongs on leopards…
by 13th April 2017

In recent years, illegal poachers have waged a devastating war on our planet’s iconic wildlife species. From the highly endangered rhino and African wild dog, to the world’s majestic big cats right down to the scaly pangolin, countless animals now find themselves on the threatened species list and, in many cases, dangling dangerously on the brink of extinction.

For more than 25 years, our core company ethos here at &Beyond remains “care of the land, care of the wildlife, and care of the people.” Not only are we deeply committed to conservation and the preservation of the animal kingdom, but we also positively impact more than 9 million acres of wildlife land and continue to do whatever we can to help endangered species escape extinction.

From translocating gaur (Indian wild cattle) and barasingha (swamp deer) between India’s national parks, to moving 100 rhino out of South Africa’s poaching hotspots and providing a safe haven for endangered green sea turtle hatchlings, suni antelope and Aders’ duiker in Zanzibar, &Beyond has numerous highly successful conservation initiatives on the go.

Simply by travelling with us, our guests actually enable these key projects to exist and thereby make a substantial contribution towards helping many threatened species to escape an untimely death at the hands of illegal poachers. It is the luxury of travelling to make a meaningful and lasting difference.

A decade of leopard research

The decade-long MunYaWana Leopard Project, a collaboration between &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve and Panthera (a global organisation devoted to preserving big cats and their ecosystems), was the most extensive leopard research ever conducted in the world.

During the course of the project, more than 75 leopards were collared and intensively monitored. More than 2 000 observations were tallied, 8 300 locations manually verified using a telemetry receiver and over 20 400 vital locations collected from the GPS-collared leopards. Camera trapping through the use of remotely-triggered digital camera technology also provided accurate density estimates of the leopard population.

As a direct result of this ten-year study at &Beyond Phinda, regulations for sustainable leopard trophy hunting were enforced and a stricter system of permits for the control of problem animals established. A leopard management programme for cattle farmers and ranchers was also introduced, providing them with training and support in alternative means of protecting their livestock from predators such as the leopard. This resulted in a decrease in annual leopard mortality rates from 40% to a far more natural 13%.

To skin a cat

The MunYaWana study further confirmed that leopards in southern Africa are under severe threat and are being heavily persecuted for their immaculate spotted fur. According to surveys conducted by Panthera, it is estimated that between 4 500 and 7 000 leopard skins are harvested unlawfully every year to form the ceremonial attire for Shembe religious gatherings. Guy Balme, Panthera Leopard Programme Director, claims this is the greatest single threat facing leopards in southern Africa.

Traditionally, only Zulu royalty was permitted to wear leopard skins; however, the Shembe Church, a four million strong religious group, has adopted the skins into their ceremonial costume. This has pushed illegal demand for leopard skins through the roof. Leopard researcher and former &Beyond Phinda Assistant Reserve Manager, Tristan Dickerson, was instrumental in the MunYaWana project. He firmly believed you cannot save the leopard without the full support of the Shembe people and it soon became Tristan’s mission to discover a solution to benefit all parties.

He set out to design and manufacture a high-quality, affordable fake fur to alleviate the pressure on wild leopard populations. Panthera continues to gain endorsement from the Church and to date, over 9 000 faux leopard skins are now being worn by the Shembe people. Watch the groundbreaking trailer for Tristan’s To Skin a Cat documentary.

&Beyond rangers pay it forward

&Beyond’s long-standing partnership with Panthera continues, with the rangers at &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp also assisting the organisation with another leopard research programme that is directly linked to the booming illegal leopard skin trade.

&Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp ranger, Sean Messham, explains:

“By creating a genetic reference database to pinpoint exactly where each illegal skin originates and which leopard populations are most affected, Panthera hopes to develop a strong argument to present to wildlife authorities concerning the illegal trade.

The Kirkman’s Kamp rangers are therefore recording all leopard movement and collecting leopard scat samples throughout the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

MSc student Vincent Naude then extracts DNA from each leopard scat and is steadily building an official Sabi Sand leopard database. Panthera can then compare this database with over 1 000 leopard skin samples that have been confiscated from the Shembe markets. With the ability to cross-compare these databases, Panthera can determine with precise accuracy where the leopard skins originated. This knowledge will prove instrumental in creating a viable argument to present to environmental authorities on the detrimental impact the church is having on southern Africa’s diminishing leopard populations.”

This is another example of like-minded conservation organisations working hand in hand for the protection and survival of wildlife. In the words of Panthera, “Leopard print will always be around. But will leopards?” Images © Sean Messham and Warrick Davey.