CNN  — 

For centuries, the Lozi people of Zambia’s Barotseland region have worn the skins of wild cats at special events and ceremonies. Now, in a bid to save the animals, they are switching to fake fur.

“Our wildlife is disappearing because it’s being poached out of existence,” says Lozi senior chief Inyambo Yeta, who initiated the project.

During festivities, Lozi men wear skirts made from the skins and tails of leopards and a smaller spotted cat, the serval, plus a red beret topped with a lion mane headpiece. The skins are not professionally cured, says Yeta, so they get worn out and need replacing every three years or so – which leads to more illegal killing of the wild cats.

In 2016, Yeta asked Panthera – an international organization dedicated to saving wild cats – for help. With support from non-profit group Peace Parks Foundation and jewelry-maker Cartier, Lozi representatives and Panthera collaborated to launch the Saving Spots campaign.

Tailors in Durban, South Africa, sew fake fur leopard capes for members of the Shembe Church.

“We worked with digital designers to develop the replica furs,” says Gareth Whittington-Jones, project manager for Saving Spots. The “heritage furs” are woven on special looms to create thick-pile fabrics that look and feel authentic. The material is produced in factories in China and then tailored in Durban, South Africa.”We make sure each skirt looks slightly different, so they don’t look factory produced,” says Whittington-Jones. So far, 200 skirts and 200 lion mane headpieces have been produced.

The most persecuted big cat in the world

According to Guy Balme, director of leopard programs for Panthera, the leopard’s beautiful spotted pelt has been its downfall. Although the big cats face a number of dangers including habitat loss and poorly-managed trophy hunting, “demand for leopard parts for ceremonial wear is the number one threat in southern Africa,” he says.

The leopard is the most persecuted big cat in the world.

Data on population sizes is lacking in some areas, says Balme, but leopards “have already vanished from at least two thirds of their historical range in Africa.” Some of the remaining populations are in freefall, with declines of up to 70% recorded in the last six years, he says.

Serval populations are even less well-studied but, “given how much serval fur we see at ceremonies, it’s got to be having an effect,” says Balme.