When Richard Branson swanned around with a piece of (apparently fake) leopard skin over his shoulders at the Virgin Money launch recently, he tuned into a growing trend among urban fashionistas to adorn themselves with the skins of endangered species. Branson's representative, Tracey Meaker, insisted he was wearing fake fur.
When Richard Branson swanned around with a piece of (apparently fake) leopard skin over his shoulders at the Virgin Money launch last week, he tuned into a growing trend among urban fashionistas to adorn themselves with the skins of endangered species.
Bransonâ€™s representative, Tracey Meaker, insisted this week he was wearing fake fur. It was part of an over-the-top costume and stunt whose aim was to highlight how local banks were ripping off South Africans, she said.
Fake or not, conservationists are worried about a rising popularity of wildlife fur among rich suburbanites who add it to their wardrobes of bling fashion accessories. Skins are used not only in traditional ceremonial regalia, but in costumes to entertain tourists and fancy dress for social events such as weddings.
Phil Baker, a tourism operator who regularly visits the Mai Mai informal market in downtown Johannesburg, recently counted body parts from 34 endangered species for sale, he said. At least seven stalls were selling piles of skins from big cats, which were cured and tanned on their premises.
“The vendors are sending treated skins or tailored costumes to a middleman in Rosebank. They are popular among the urban rich, who wear them to weddings in rural areas and other fashionable events,” he said.
Baker said he discovered that most of the leopard skins at the market are brought in from Botswana and Zimbabwe by couriers on buses. They cost between R3 500 and R4 500 after being treated. Cheetah skins, which mostly come from Namibia, cost R5 500 when treated.
A ceremonial outfit made of leopard skin, which would include an apron, headdress and armbands, fetches about R6 000, Baker said. Cheetah skin is used on smaller items such as wrist gauntlets, headbands and armbands, where the smaller spots show better than the often larger leopard spots.
“Traditionally only kings and princes were permitted to wear these but now, it seems, to be rich is enough,” said Baker.
The trade is illegal, and Gauteng law-enforcement officials said they would investigate the Mai Mai market in response to Mail & Guardian inquiries. Penalties for the illegal sale of game ranged from a R1 000 fine to up to 10 yearsâ€™ imprisonment, said Sizwe Matshikiza, spokesperson for the Gauteng department of agriculture, conservation and environment.
Both leopards and cheetahs are listed as Appendix I species threatened with extinction in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Permits are required for hunting trophies and tags have to be attached to skins that are legally traded.
Because of the leopardâ€™s solitary, secretive and mostly nocturnal habits, nobody knows how many there are left in South Africa. Research by the Endangered Wildlife Trust last year indicated they are in danger of local extinction in a number of regions, mainly as a result of habitat loss and illegal trade.
Zulu traditionalists such as Jacob Zuma and members of his entourage dress up in skins as a sign of honour or royalty. One journalist described Zumaâ€™s supporters at his rape trial earlier this year as “an ocean of leopard skins”.
Many skins worn by the old traditionalists are inherited and go back to a time when the wearers actually killed the animal themselves in the wild. These skins would not be covered by Cites prohibitions, Baker said.
However, bling fashionistas planning to build up credit on their Virgin cards should note the findings of a recent undercover investigation by the United Kingdom-based Environmental Investigation Agency before they splash out on real skin.
The agency discovered “a massive increase” in the availability of tiger and leopard skins in China and Tibet, mainly used in traditional costumes to entertain tourists. The trade had contributed to the virtual extinction of tigers in India.
“In the past five years, the international community has seen the trade in tiger and leopard skins spiral out of control,” said Debbie Banks, a senior campaigner at the agency. “If this trade continues unabated for another five years, it will be the end for the wild tiger.”
Cub offered for illegal ‘cannedâ€™ hunt
Last week a live leopard cub was crouched in a cage for five days waiting for someone to cough up enough money to shoot him.
The six-month-old male leopard cub (pictured), captured by a farmer, was offered for an illegal “canned” hunt near Potgietersrus. His captors were asking R16 000 and insisted he had to be shot inside the cage because they did not have permits.
Law enforcement officers confiscated the cub after a tip-off and sent him to a rehabilitation centre. After five days of gnawing at the bars of the cage, he had to go to Onderstepoort for treatment of his teeth and jaws before being released.
Limpopo conservation officials said the farmer who trapped the cub, Hendrik Scott, and the professional hunter who tried to sell him, Retief Rickert, had been arrested and would be charged with the illegal capture and attempted sale of a protected species. In terms of new environmental laws, they could be fined up to R150 000 or sentenced to years in jail.—Fiona Macleod