Can a man who has never apologized for posing proudly over the body of a massive dead African mammal which he has just shot ever be an effective cheerleader for worldwide conservation?
Even before the circus of outrage surrounding the killing of Cecil the Lion, such a prospect would have seemed doubtful.
Yet, that is exactly what Prince Harry, who is currently working on the ‘frontline’ of anti-poaching efforts in Africa, is attempting to do.
Prince Harry may mistakenly think—or hope—the media suffers memory loss.
However, animal-rights activists and social media will not ever forget that in 2004 Prince Harry shot and killed a one-ton water buffalo while working on a ranch in South America on his gap year.
In the prince’s defense, the animal was not a protected species and was killed lawfully.
Still, it didn’t help his image when he was pictured grinning proudly next to the fallen beast in photographs that somehow emerged into the public domain a decade later.
At the time, Harry was 20 years old and on holiday with his girlfriend, Chelsy Davy.
Chelsy’s dad, Charles, owns a vast estate in Zimbabwe which relies heavily on trophy hunting for financial sustainability.
Indeed, the website for the estate openly boasts that the:
“850 000 acre territory is a hunting ground like no other… owned by a consortium of keen conservationists, the Conservancy now offers low-density, high-value hunting concessions, where the annual offtake of mature animals is carefully regulated and managed to ensure sustainable use.”
Several hundred animals a year—as the tale of Cecil the Lion has revealed—are killed by Western big-game hunters, an activity which, abhorrent as it may be to mainstream Western tastes and users of social media, is entirely legal, and actively supported by many influential ecologists across Africa.
Their reasoning: Many older male animals are going to be killed off anyway by succession fights, so why not raise a few million by doing nature’s dirty work for it?
Conservationists who support trophy hunting—and there are plenty of them—also argue that hunting is one of the few ways local people can monetize the preserved environment, giving them more incentive to protect it.
Conservationist Peter Sander is part of this cohort that supports properly organized trophy hunting in Namibia. “It plays a huge part in the economies of the conservancies. It definitely has a place. But it needs to be done selectively—for example, shooting an old bull elephant—and with proper controls,” Sander told The Daily Beast.
A similar argument is used by proponents of fox hunting, and pheasant and grouse shooting, in the UK.
Much to the dismay of those who find killing animals for fun abhorrent, the uncomfortable truth is that these activists are correct.
In fact, fostering hunting may ultimately improve animal diversity and welfare.
As Clive Aslet, editor of Country Life, pointed out in a recent Telegraph piece, “Grouse moors which are shot over are far richer in all species of birds than those which aren’t.”
The reason? They can afford gamekeepers who are paid to manage the heather and shoot predators, such as crows and weasels.
Ironically enough, there’s ample evidence that hunting protects habitats and actually improves the herd survival rate of the hunted beast.
That is why the Namibian tourism minister specifically warned Harry not to criticize trophy hunting. The spoils of the sport, along with a massive trade in bushmeat, have led to many Namibian conservation groups supporting trophy hunting.
No fewer than 80 wildlife conservancies in Namibia rely on funds from such maligned activities.
That controlled and carefully managed hunting can benefit overall survival rates is a fact. But, the collective stomach of the Western public still turns at the thought of men (and they are men usually) slaughtering animals for fun.
Illogical as it may be, Harry’s impact as a fundraiser and global motivator for conservation is fatally compromised by his love of hunting. It is just too emotional of a stick with which to beat him.
Even without that damning water buffalo picture, reports of how many brace Harry has slaughtered in one afternoon fill British newspapers from the day the pheasant shooting season opens on 1 November until the day it closes at the end of February (the Sandringham estate gets a one-month extension on the normal closing date of 31 January due to the vast numbers of birds they breed).
The coverage generates an entirely predictable and unsurprising cynicism among the global audience Prince Harry spends so much time trying to win over for his conservation cause.
The frustrated soldier in Harry may wish he really was “on the front line” of the anti-poaching wars. Indeed, a breathless piece in the Daily Mail revealed he was involved in a dramatic shootout with a gang of poachers in the Kruger Park in South Africa.
Still, the truth is, Prince Harry has far more value as a symbol of the anti-poaching effort than as a member of its infantry.
Where does this leave Harry? In a tight spot, basically, as long as he insists on continuing shooting—and there is no indication he intends to curtail his blood sports schedule this winter.
He is already taking flak for the trip to Africa, with it being perceived by some as nothing more than a ‘gap yah’ jolly, a fanciful trip for the young and privileged to “rough it” in developing regions.
Indeed, this accuastion has become a theme in reports on Harry’s anti-poaching efforts following a story that ran in The Daily Beast. The piece featured a prominent Namibian journalist and news editor, Wonder Gochu, who offered a scathing critique of Harry’s potential to impact poaching in Namibia:
“This boy’s visit here will not change anything. People still go hungry, people who have no jobs will still have no jobs when he goes back. They will not even give a second thought about him being here or not being here.”
Gochu made it clear that poaching was something of much greater concern to rich Westerners than local Namibians. “Prince Harry has everything. Most people here don’t. A man who has no shelter, no food, his focus is only on what he can get to eat,” he told The Daily Beast.
Gochu’s caustic commentary was picked up by news outlets across the globe.
Columnist Eleanor Mills at the Sunday Times opined that Harry would learn more about life getting a job for a few months at Pret-A-Manger than larking about in helicopters in Africa.
Mills is spot-on. But in lieu of that Pret foray, Harry must recognize (even if it is not logical) the perceived hypocrisy between his public stance as conservationist and his private enjoyment of slaughtering birds by the hundred—and that this perception hinders his conservationist cause.
There is no doubt that Harry is genuinely passionate about conservation.
However, if he really wants to be taken seriously as an advocate for the animal kingdom, it is time to put down his guns.