When Tristan Dickerson landed his dream job
of working as a leopard conservationist for
Panthera at Phinda, he didn't think it would lead him
to a career in fashion. But fashion, or at least fake fur,
is the only way Dickerson believes he can save South
Africa's remaining 4 000 leopards from being killed
for their skins.
Once the reserve of royalty, leopard skins have
become customary ceremonial attire for the Shembe
church and its four million followers. Unwittingly,
their admiration for the regal creature is fuelling an
illicit skin trade that, with strong cultural ties in a
country with a culturally sensitive climate, is beyond
the control of law.
Dickerson came to understand the gravity of the
threat to the dwindling leopard population from
increased poaching, even in protected areas, when
he was invited to attend a gathering of the Shembe
church in Durban. In one sitting he spotted 600 skins.
But he also noticed something else - that real
leopard fur, costing up to R6 000 for a full skin, is
beyond the means of many Shembe followers, who
resort to dressing themselves and their children in
cheap Chinese knock-offs. This inspired his crafty,
diplomatic plan. If he could make high-quality,
affordable fake fur accessible to Shembe followers,
surely he could reduce their need for the real deal
while keeping the animals they most admire alive?
So began his year-long foray into fashion design
- exploring the feasibility of printing on either
impala skins or synthetics, as well as coming up
with a potentially perfect solution in silver knitting.
Dickerson's journey towards saving endangered
leopards with fake fur is now the subject of a
documentary, To Skin a Cat, which highlights the
plight of the leopard and the work of this lone
With his first furs due in July, time will tell whether
Dickerson can convince the Shembe church and its
followers to change their spots. - Lu Larché