A staple of 1940s fashions could help save leopards from poachers.

A big cat conservation group is handing out faux-leopard print capes to residents of South African communities who wear the real animal skins for ceremonial purposes. The hope is that the synthetic skins will reduce demand for real leopard skins, thereby reducing poaching of the majestic animal.

Ceremonial essential

Leopards are the smallest of the big cats, and though they aren't endangered species yet, their population numbers have been declining in some parts of Africa due to habitat loss and poaching.

Leopard skins have become a wardrobe essential for the 5 million members of South Africa's Shembe Church, a church founded in 1910 by Isaiah Shembe that melds Zulu and Christian elements.

The Church has adopted leopard skin capes, known as amambatha, from Zulu chiefs, as a sign of power and beauty. They now use the capes in many religious ceremonies. Though some skins are handed down through the family, many church members are seeking new ones, which means more poaching of the graceful hunters.

Reducing poaching

To reduce leopard poaching, Panthera, a big cat conservation organization, along with the shipping company DHL, is delivering 4,000 free amambatha to church members this year.

"That translates to over 2,000 leopards saved from poachers," Panthera president Luke Hunter said in a statement.

The success of the operation relies on church members accepting fake leopard skins in place of the real deal. So far, the community response has been positive.

"As a leader of the Shembe community, I have seen firsthand how receptive my community is to using these fake skins. Not only do they look and feel like real leopard skins, they also last longer," said Shembe elder and legal advisor Lizwi Ncwane in a statement.

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