Joining the spots: leopard print fashion and big cat conservation

Joining the spots: leopard print fashion and big cat conservation

A leopard, so the saying goes, cannot change its spots, but could the fashion industry play its part in helping to reverse the decline of this charismatic species?

‘Yes’, say researchers at Oxford University, who explore in a new paper the extent of public interest in leopard print fashion, and whether this interest could be harnessed for the benefit of the animals through a ‘species royalty’ initiative.

Dr Caroline Good, of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), who led the research, says, ‘Leopard print is one of fashion’s most enduring trends. But, sadly, leopards themselves have disappeared from more than 75% of their historic range and have become extinct in at least a dozen countries and region

‘We set out to quantify the interest in leopard print fashion by analysing traditional news outlets, Google activity, and Instagram posts. We found that, while there are 2.9 million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #leopardprint and 80,000 English-language news articles over a 15-year period, there is very little evidence that this interest leads to discussion of issues surrounding biodiversity loss and the extinction crisis. For example, in traditional news media, fewer than 2% of mentions of leopard print were associated with the leopard’s conservation status.

‘There is a clear disconnect between the continued interest in leopard print fashion and the lack of interest in – or concern for – the animal itself.’

The researchers say that, while this disconnect presents challenges, the proliferation of leopard print in fashion may mask the genuine threat faced by the species in the wild – it also brings potential opportunities for conservation.

Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU (and a co-author of the paper), says, ‘The crucial question is whether this colossal interest in leopard print can be turned into conservation advantage in the future. Can we find a way to connect fashion to the urgency of leopard conservation, and in a way that converts enthusiasm not merely to awareness but into practical benefit for the species?

‘In this paper we revisit our previous idea that implementing a “species royalty” for the use of heavy animal symbolism in affluent cultural economies could revolutionise conservation funding. This would be a big challenge involving commitments from lots of different parties, but we believe it is an idea worth exploring.’

The researchers suggest that, with the vast amount of leopard print items sold worldwide annually, even the tiniest royalty paid on each item as a mutual benefit exchange would transform funding for leopard conservation.

Dr Good adds, ‘We hope this study will be of interest to conservation NGOs looking for innovative marketing campaigns, as well as for-profit fashion brands and retailers looking to engage with consumers who are demanding social responsibility from their brands. This is a potential long-term solution to funding spotted cat conservation that could be implemented worldwide.’