The Importance of the Leopard

The leopard skin is an iconic symbol in Zulu culture. A man dressed in a traditional leopard pelt, or amambatha, is easily recognised as Zulu. The leopard (ingwe) is revered by the Zulus, who consider the cat a totem animal blessed with special powers, but according to Lizwe Ncwane, a senior member of the Shembe church, the power of the leopard doesn’t come from the skin itself:

The power comes from the tradition where the king used to give a leopard skin as a reward. If the king gave you one, you were extremely privileged. Traditionally the king was the only person that was allowed to issue them.

It is thought that King Shaka was the first person to present leopard skins as a reward, but the use of the skins as garments supposedly only gained popularity when King Cetshwayo donned a leopard pelt in the 1890s. Wearing the skin of a leopard showed an elevated social position – traditionally a married Zulu man would wear a headband made of impala during ceremonies, whereas the headband worn by an induna would be made of leopard skin, with the king being allowed to wear as much leopard skin as he wished. Zulu warriors would also wear leopard skins as a reward for their courage and bravery in battle.

The teeth and claws of leopards were also used to make beads used for necklaces, and were a sign of the power and achievements of the wearer. In traditional medicine a leopard’s claw is also thought to promote business stability.

Today the threat of extinction of the leopard has resulted in a massive drive to encourage people to wear fake leopard skins. A campaign, targeted specifically at the Shembe church who’s congregants traditionally wear leopard skins for their gatherings, has seen impressive results:

Very rarely in the world of conservation do you see a resolution this simple and respectful of cultural and religious traditions that is so swiftly accepted by local communities.” Dr. Guy Balme, Leopard Program Director for Panthera

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