When this past Sunday, April 21, the Sunday Times of London reported that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were considering a move to a yet-to-be-determined country in Africa for a period of time in the near future, I thought, "Well of course."
Asked for comment, Buckingham Palace neither affirmed nor denied the story: “Any future plans for the Duke and Duchess are speculative at this stage. No decisions have been taken about future roles.”
But it made total sense to me-based solely on some things Prince Harry told me a few years ago.
In late July and early August of 2016, I spent a week in the small African nation of Malawi with Prince Harry. To clarify: We were in a little safari lodge called Mvuu (“hippo” in the local Chichewa language) in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park but I wasn’t safari.
Together with photographer Alexei Hay, I was reporting on a massive, in many ways unprecedented conservation operation being conducted by the NGO African Parks-the translocation, for their safety, of 500 elephants from Liwonde, which African Parks manages, to Nkhotakhota, another wilderness area in Malawi under their management. (I wrote about it and African Parks’ groundbreaking approach to conservation for T&C’s February 2017 cover story.)
Prince Harry was in Malawi for longer-three weeks to my one. (And he would be back for approximately another month the following summer, 2017, for phase two of the operation.) And although I was nominally “participating”-invited on occasion to ride in the helicopter from which the elephants were darted with sedatives, riding daily in the so-called “chase” vehicle in which the ground crew rushed through the bush to the sedated elephants (and which, by the way, spoiled me for run-of-the-mill safari game drives forever)-Harry was actually working.
Although in his other life he was fifth in line to the British throne (Prince Louis had not yet been born), in Malawi that summer Harry was simply one member of a crew of 10 wildlife translocation specialists (from a company called Conservation Solutions). To situate this experience in the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s timeline, it was right after Harry and Meghan’s first two dates and right before their mid-August sojourn together in Botswana (which he referred to during their November 2017 engagement announcement).
I watched Prince Harry daily, as I did the other members of the crew, whose coordination and often wordless “in-syncness” was riveting to observe-how he and the others ran toward the still-standing darted giants (they sometimes needed a push to keel over, and it could take several men to accomplish this); how they inspected their postures on the ground (resting on their chest is bad, on their sides is good), how they monitored the animals’ breathing and oxygen levels once they were down; how, once the process of loading the elephants onto the transport trucks began, Harry would on occasion go into the so-called wake-up box (a large steel container on rubber wheels) to administer the reversal drug. “Harry, wake them up,” the order would be issued.
I asked him one day if he wasn’t afraid. “I’ve done this a few times before,” Harry replied. “Also, I’m fatalistic. If something is going to happen to you, it will happen. And I have such a respect for wild animals that it’s a privilege to be around them. Plus, the army taught me teamwork.” (His cred was confirmed to me by the co-founder of Conservation Solutions, Kester Vickery, who was in effect Harry’s “boss” during the elephant translocation: “Harry is a quick-thinking individual. Which in a crisis situation makes all the difference.”)
I spoke with Harry casually during the action when circumstances permitted-the urgent and wholly absorbing task at hand always, needless to say, came first. And halfway through my week in Liwonde we sat down one evening over beers and talked alone for an hour. About conservation, about Africa, and about his feelings for that continent.
He was immensely knowledgeable about matters of conservation. As African Parks’ Zimbabwean-born founder and CEO Peter Fernhead would confirm, “Harry is extremely informed on many of the key issues. He has truly invested himself. He can speak with authority. And that’s very important.”
That trip was Harry’s first with African Parks, and he has since become the NGO’s president. “I completely fell in love with African Parks,” he told me, “because they get things done. They make tough decisions and they stick to principles.”
Harry was emotional, in the best possible way, about his personal relationship to the continent. He told me about his first trip to Africa: “I first came in 1997, straight after my mum died. My dad told my brother and me to pack our bags-we were going to Africa to get away from it all. My brother and I were brought up outdoors-we appreciate the countryside, we appreciate nature and everything about it. But it became more…."
“This,” he continued, “is where I feel more like myself than anywhere else in the world. I wish that I could spend more time in Africa.” Being there, he said, “was like being plugged into the earth. You leave this place with a real appreciation of what it means to be alive.”
He is often, he told me, in Africa planning mode-when, between his many official duties, he can fit in a few weeks, or a month, or six weeks, in Africa.
As the African night, resonant with the grunts of hippos emerging from the Shire River for their nighttime grazing, deepened around us, he elaborated on his feelings for the continent. “I have this intense sense of complete relaxation and normality here. To not get recognized….” There were in fact a few people sitting at a small table a few down from ours in the lodge’s open-air restaurant, and no one was paying us any attention.
“To lose myself in the bush with what I call the most down-to-earth people on the planet, people [dedicated to conservation] with no ulterior motives, no agendas, who would sacrifice everything for the betterment of nature…. I don’t go on safari, I go to support them…. I talk to them about their jobs, about what they do. And I learn so much. And then I go home and bang the drum. So that we can all try to make a difference.”
It seemed to me, from what he said, that he very much envisioned for himself a long-lasting commitment to the conservation cause. “Everyone has a different opinion; every country has a different way of doing things,” he told me. “But I do believe that we need a regulatory body so that everyone who owns or manages wildlife is subject to inspection and rated on how well they look after the animals and how the communities benefit. I know I’m going to get criticized for this, but we have to come together.”
Prince Harry has other interests in Africa besides conservation, of course; 19 African states are members of the British Commonwealth. And among other philanthropic initiatives, Harry co-founded (with Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso) the Sentebale charity, which provides support to children living with HIV in Lesotho, Malawi, and Botswana.
And any day now Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will have their own new reason to think about the earth and our place in it and to try and safeguard it for the future-their child’s and everyone else’s.
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