The Leopard in the Lala – Author’s Notes

The Leopard in the Lala – Author’s Notes

Author’s Notes

You don’t find the story; the story finds you.


Between December 2012 and December 2013, approximately 1004 rhino were poached in South Africa. The Kruger National Park (KNP), South Africa’s biggest national reserve, experienced the majority of these killings. Not only is KNP home to the largest rhino population in South Africa, but its vast geographic range, and proximity to the Mozambican border – a key trafficking route – make it an ideal hunting ground for poachers. KwaZulu-Natal, also home to numerous private and national game reserves, began to see a marked increase in poaching incidents in 2012.

When faced with the carnage of one of Africa’s most awe-inspiring Big Five animals, it’s easy to forget other endangered species that fly under the radar due to their elusive nature. The leopard, another of Africa’s Big Five, is one such animal. In the research stage of the yet-to-be-named second book, I came across a 2011 newspaper article about a muthi trader who’d been caught with 150 leopard skins. The skins were destined for the Nazareth Baptist Church, also referred to as the Shembes, who wear leopard skins as part of their ceremonial attire.

The article led me to the work of ecologist, Tristan Dickerson, who was researching leopards in the Zululand area. Dickerson had noticed a significant decline in leopard populations and began to investigate. Initially, Dickerson was focused on farmers in the area who were killing ‘rogue’ leopards which they accused of killing their livestock. He found that some farmers were obtaining destruction permits for said leopards, but using them to sell leopard hunts to professional hunters for financial gain. While working with the farmers to find alternative solutions, he became involved in the aforementioned muthi trader case.  It was during this interaction that he became aware of the Shembe church and its use of leopard skins.

To Skin a Cat

In the early days of studying anthropology, I learnt a very important life lesson: when introduced to a new culture, or way of thinking, try to stand alongside the person who’s sharing their culture or point of view. I say alongside because I don’t believe it’s possible to fully understand the life of another, especially as an outsider. But we can certainly try. Half the battle is won when we stay quiet and start listening. And over the years, I learnt the art of intentional listening. Not for the sake of arguing or defending my point, but rather to understand a worldview different from my own. Was it always comfortable? Of course, not. I was often torn between wanting to understand a particular aspect of a culture or set of beliefs, but found myself conflicted when it so obviously flew in the face of my own. But in my field of work, social development, there is limited change when your agenda is simply to replace the culture within which you are working, with your own.

Dickerson’s work led to me the documentary To Skin a Cat, directed by Greg Lomas and Colwyn Thomas. The documentary follows Dickerson’s mission to work with the Shembe church in offering an alternative to real leopard skins. What I love about Dickerson’s solution was that it had already been found, and implemented, by the Shembe followers.

There’s a wonderful quote from Nancy Kline that says, ‘The brain that contains the problem, probably also contains the solution.’

For Dickerson, this was true. ‘The penny dropped when I saw the lower ranking members (of the Shembe church) wearing impala skins with spots hand-painted on them’.

Dickerson focused on what was already acceptable to the followers. Through non-profit organisation, Panthera’s, Furs for Life Programme, Dickerson embarked on a lengthy journey to create a realistic imitation skin for the church. Was it easy? No. Did he come up against those for and against the project within the church? Yes. Did it work? I’m pleased to say that it did. At no point did Dickerson insist that this was the only solution, rather, it was one solution in an effort to decrease the number of leopard being poached in sub-Saharan Africa.

A 2020 article in Conservation Science and Practice, revealed ‘although authentic skins were still acquired, demand decreased significantly over 3 years.’

When reality meets fiction

Saba Ryan, the newest character in The Poacher’s Moon Crime Series, is loosely based on my time spent working as a craft developer in rural Zululand. Prior to this, I was working as a graphic designer and had lost hope of ever doing anything truly creative and meaningful with my life (Ah, how short-sighted we are in our youth – I was all of 22!). Designing adverts was soul-destroying, and I was despondent about the trajectory of my career.

One Sunday, flipping through the job section of the paper, I came across an advert for a learnership. The intention: to match qualified designers with crafters in rural Zululand. And so began the most unbelievable year of my life. Like Saba, I arrived in a tiny village with very unrealistic expectations of what it meant to live in a rural homestead.  No electricity, no running water, long-drop toilets, and sleeping either on the floor or in the bed with our host. I was also very white. This was made clear to me when a young child was placed in my arms, and she promptly burst into tears at the site of the palest human being she’d ever seen. But quickly, so quickly, I began to look forward to our two-week trips to live and work with the crafters. One night, too terrified to venture into the pitch black night to the long-drop loo, but desperate for a wee, I peed into a Ziploc bag (with only the light of my Nokia 3310 to guide me). Impressive, I can assure you. On my next trip, our very kind host, presented me with a pink plastic bucket decorated with flowers, to the laughter of my teammates.

There were five of us in our wonderfully diverse group. An interesting mix of Zulu, Xhosa, white, black, Muslim, Christian, male, and female. While the men were put up in modest luxury (each had their very own mattress, and breakfast was served on waking), we women were left to our own devices, and I believe, we had more fun than the men. We learnt so much about each other. Cooking together presented wonderful learning opportunities. The meat had to be halaal, while poking cooking chicken with a knife was a big cultural no-no, for reasons I can no longer remember! Were there a few bust-ups? Yes. Specifically related to how men and women are treated in different cultures.  As a Western woman, I struggled more than the others.

While the village of KwaMjiza drew its inspiration from the one we stayed in, all characters are fictitious, and in no way bear resemblance (in physical form and personal characteristics) to the wonderful women (and men) I worked with.

In 2016, I had the opportunity to work with the same group of women, and I continue to stay in touch, which I consider an absolute privilege.

Places to visit

Zululand truly is where my heart lies, in particular the Big Five False Bay area. Whenever I feel low, or disconnected, but I can’t physically visit the area, I go there in my head. I travel its sand-rutted roads and look out for zebra, impala, and rhino as I drive along the fence lines of game reserves. I peer out the windscreen when large pelican-shaped shadows roll across the tar and over my vehicle. I might peel off the main road and head to False Bay, hoping to glimpse a leopard as I make my way down to the water’s edge, or on the way home, stop at Zamimpilo Market and buy a tower of pineapples.

The forest walk, in the chapter The Green Cathedral, is based on a walk I took with my family in False Bay on the Mpophomeni trail in 2021. Sam Mdluli (otherwise known as Sam ‘Sdokho’, for the signature hat he wears) was our knowledgeable guide and introduced us to the wonders of the forest and its various biomes. Zotha is however a fictitious character, and the scenes and information in the chapter are an amalgamation of the many wonderful stories I’ve heard from game rangers and guides, as well as plentiful reading of books about local flora and fauna. And, it was of course me who got stung by a wasp three times!

Muzi Pan is also a real place, but I took artistic licence in describing its layout and the time of the facility’s demise.


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