Spot to spot: connecting the fashion industry and leopard conservation

Chloe Thomas

Whether scrolling through Instagram, walking down the High Street, or exploring high-end luxury brands, you’ve probably encountered the aesthetic brilliance of leopard print. It is a timeless fashion trend, and yet its visibility in the wild is rapidly disappearing.

The leopard (Panthera pardus) has vanished from more than 75% of its historical habitat. Two of its nine subspecies are classified as Endangered, and three others as Critically Endangered. This highly charismatic species is more vulnerable than believed, which is dismally ironic as the demand for fashion items replicating their pattern continue to soar – but what if the fashion industry could play a role in helping to reverse the plight of the leopard?

Research led by Dr Caroline Good of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) explored in a new paper the global interest in leopard print, evaluating whether this interest is associated with an interest in leopards themselves, and if this could be transformed into opportunities for conservation.

Global interest in leopard print fashion was quantified by analysing data from Google activity, news outlets, and social media. The results showed that in traditional news media, less than 2% of mentions of leopard print were associated with the leopard’s conservation status. While there are over 2 million Instagram posts with the hashtag leopardprint, there is little evidence that these posts foster conversations about real-life leopards or the sixth mass extinction the planet is currently facing.

But maybe the chasm between the public interest for leopard print fashion and the conservation of the leopards themselves could be bridged to make the relationship mutually beneficial. Implementing “species royalties”, whereby a payment is made to conservation initiatives for the privilege of using leopard print (and other animal symbolism) for commercial purposes, could revolutionise conservation funding and enhance the cultural conscience of economic policy.

Today’s consumer is becoming more environmentally minded and this has put strain on the evolution of the fashion industry to focus on ethics over profit. If a species royalty were implemented, wearing leopard-print would not only be a fashion statement, but a statement of having contributed to the species’ conservation.

Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU, identified the leopard as a potential “ambassador species” meaning it is a species that is “effective at generating attention for wider biodiversity within their distribution”. A practical means to secure funding to save the leopard therefore also has the potential to save the species that share its habitats.

Whilst there are potential challenges to implementing a species royalty, overcoming which would require the collaboration of multiple sectors,  the benefits that could arise from such a scheme means that this idea should not be ignored.

Leopards cannot change their spots, but the fashion industry can help change their future.

image credit – “Posing leopard” by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0