Tristan Dickerson

Leopard conservationist

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 crusader. 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 Larche

Website: YouTube: Tristan Dickerson