Prince Harry Joins a Pioneering Conservation Outfit in the Fight to Save Africa’s Wild Animals


Klara Glowczewska, Town & Country

Date Published


See link for photo gallery. 
It’s an early morning in August, my first in Malawi, and I’m riding in a Land Cruiser at the front of a small convoy along a tree-lined track in Liwonde National Park, headed for the floodplain of the Shire River. The rains stopped two months ago, and all around are various shades of pale—bleached blue sky, yellow grasses, sand-colored soil. It looks serene, but the atmosphere is electric. And not just because Prince Harry is riding in the vehicle right behind mine—although that does, I’ll admit, lend a certain charm.

“Nice to meet you, T&C,” he ventured earlier over a hasty standup breakfast back at the campsite at Liwonde’s Mvuu Lodge, where we are staying (mvuu is “hippo” in the local Chichewa language). Eyeing my bowl of dry cereal—how’s this for Prince Charming?—he brought over some honey. “It’s better with this,” he offered, playing the old hand showing the newbie the ropes. (He arrived a week ago; Team T&C only just.) “We’re all dogs here!” he quipped. “But really,” turning to whoever was responsible for the victuals, “you’re feeding the media Weetabix?”

Prince Harry is in Malawi for three weeks to actively participate in the most momentous human-engineered migration of wildlife in history—a Big Bang of 21st-century conservation.

Bantering aside (and there is to be plenty of it), we are here on serious business: Town & Country for six days to observe, and Prince Harry for three weeks to actively participate in, the most momentous human-engineered migration of wildlife in history, a Big Bang of 21st-century conservation.

Five hundred elephants, plus a veritable Noah’s ark of some 2,000 sable, waterbuck, kudu, buffalo, warthog, zebra, eland, impala, and other species, are being captured (this past summer and next) in Liwonde National Park and another Malawian wilderness area, Majete Wildlife Reserve, where elephants are abundant. (There are actually too many in small Liwonde, where the beasts have taken to wreaking havoc in adjoining fields and gardens.) The animals are then being transported in huge trucks 300 miles north to a third park, called Nkhotakota, which, in stark conservation-speak, is an “empty forest” or “ecological sink”—meaning poached out.

It is a grand experiment in relocation, and it’s clear, a few weeks in, that it’s working. “By moving 500 elephants quickly, we are proving that scale is no longer a limitation,” says Kester Vickery, co-founder of Conservation Solutions, a South Africa–based company specializing in the capture and transport of large mammals, who is masterminding the logistics of this migration. “We can move thousands, even, from overcrowded areas to safe ones where their populations can continue to grow. It is better than culling. This is the future of elephant conservation in Africa.”

Vickery, who is in charge of ground operations, is at the wheel of the vehicle I’m in, and each morning in Liwonde will start much as this one did: soon after dawn, chasing a helicopter whose thrum can be heard intermittently somewhere above and in front of us as it tries to spot either a family of elephants, as on this day (typically eight to 14 animals consisting of a matriarch and her daughters, and their calves of both genders), or solitary bulls.

The chopper then flushes them out of the cover of mopane trees onto the empty floodplain, a crack-shot veterinarian immobilizes them with darts filled with etorphine hydrochloride, a powerful opiate, and the pilot immediately directs us via air-to-ground radio to the scene, where our jobs—we’re the ground crew—will begin.

The restocking of Nkhotakota with the largest land animal on earth is not just an important first step in one park’s revival; it is also a powerful, attention-getting symbol. “It shows what is possible here and elsewhere,” says Peter Fearnhead, the Zimbabwean-born CEO and co-founder of a nonprofit boots-on-the-ground conservation organization called African Parks.

Fearnhead’s group is behind it all: African Parks manages the three Malawian parks, and it hired Vickery and his team. “This translocation is also that rare thing in conservation, genuinely good news.” (The total African elephant population of 350,000 is being reduced through poaching and habitat degradation by 40,000 a year.)

Fearnhead arrived from Johannesburg for what he calls “the fireworks.” Some of his major donors are here too, come to tiny, landlocked Malawi from the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States to see how their money is being spent (Among them are representatives of the Dutch Postcode Lottery, which donated more than $2.7 million for the operation.)

“I completely fell in love with African Parks,” Harry tells me, “because they get things done. They make tough decisions, and they stick to principles.” He and Fearnhead met in the summer of 2015, during one of Harry’s annual trips to Africa. “I don’t go on safari,” he says. “I come so I can surround myself with people [working in conservation] and support them.” This is his first trip to see African Parks in action.

The organization’s mission is unique. Instead of focusing on a single cause—protecting a particular endangered species, say—it takes a broader approach: saving wild habitat (i.e., parks), without which no wildlife can ultimately survive. The context: African governments, faced with rapidly growing populations in need of schools, hospitals, water, roads, etc., increasingly lack the motivation and money to protect their parks, which makes them vulnerable to land invaders and poaching of all kinds—for animal trophy parts, bush meat, and timber. African Parks, which has access to foreign funding, offers to manage the countries’ neglected parks for them.

“There was no A-ha moment,” Fearnhead told me. “It was an obvious solution.” So was the way the parks should be managed: long-term, because conservation takes time, and at scale, with African Parks assuming control of all aspects of park management, from wildlife (including translocations like this one), law enforcement, community engagement, infrastructure, tourism, and fundraising, and according to rigorous business principles.

“If five elephants get poached in one of the parks we’re responsible for,” Fearnhead says by way of an example, “that’s my fault. Accountability for measurable results is absolutely imperative in business. And there isn’t enough of that in conservation.”

The one in the back is really goofed already,” I hear over the radio. It’s the helicopter pilot giving Vickery a progress report on the darting. His partner, veterinarian Andre Uys, is in the chopper doing the shooting. “That would be the matriarch,” explains Vickery, who is both a central actor in the drama, responsible for ground operations, and a one-man Greek chorus, commenting for our benefit on the action. “We always dart the matriarch first, so that the big animals don’t fall on the smaller ones, and to keep the family from splintering. When their leader is hit, the rest bunch around her. They have very strong social bonds.

“And the mother-calf combo is key,” he adds. (There’s a baby in the group we’re capturing.) “We have to keep them together. Elephants have an amazing maternal instinct. First thing upon waking, they look for their young.”

Prince Harry may be fifth in line to the British throne, but while in Malawi he is simply a member of Vickery’s crew of 10: vets, pilots, drivers, and crane operators. (And everyone calls him Harry except the manager of Majete, Craig Hay, who is of Scottish descent and addresses him as sir.)

Harry rises when they rise, at dawn. He sleeps where they sleep, in one of the olive-green canvas tents pitched for the translocation crew in a semicircle on the bank of the Shire, which swarms with crocodiles and hippos. “Ten years in the army taught me about sleeping rough,” he tells me. “Although, of course, this is total luxury in comparison.”

And he stays up late with them, talking—the great, often scotch-fueled after-dinner ritual of the African bush. “I love spending time with these guys,” he says. “Night after night, chewing the fat around the fire, about the pros and cons of the legalization of rhino horn, or the historic migratory paths of elephants, or the population explosion on the African continent. And also conservation back home, which is hugely important.”

“Harry,” Fearnhead says, “is extremely informed on many of the key issues in conservation. He has truly invested himself. He can speak with authority. And that’s very important.”

“Second one down,” we hear from the chopper. It takes four to eight minutes for the opiate in the darts to take effect. “I’m coming,” Vickery replies, accelerating, as do the Land Cruisers behind us. It’s exciting in a primal sort of way: the eternal chase.

Then we’re out of the cars and running through the dry grass toward the helicopter, which has landed, and the massive gray shapes near it. The fallen animals need to be quickly stabilized, because “lots can go wrong,” says Vickery, always cheerleader and pragmatist. I’m running, I confess, with less than total enthusiasm, because some of the elephants are still standing, and there is nothing—nothing at all, and I’m a city girl—between us and them.

“I’ve done this a few times before,” Harry says when I ask him later about the fear factor, or, rather, his lack of it. “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.”

Harry, Vickery, Uys, and the rest of the team are certainly right up in there. They push on the flanks of the few upright giants, which, lo and behold, topple over. They adjust the postures of those that have sunk down onto their breastbones (this can be fatal to elephants, which need to be lying on their sides, in “lateral recumbency,” so as not to suffocate). Jeremy Hancock, the “advanced life support paramedic” who is in charge of human well-being at the capture site (we earlier handed him our signed indemnity forms), is multitasking, monitoring the elephants’ vital signs: breathing, heart rate, blood oxygen levels.

Once all the animals are down, other crew members fan out to extend trunks (it aids breathing), cover eyes with the flaps of the ears (for protection), and take measurements: length of tusk, shoulder height, and diameter of footpad (“Useful for research,” says Vickery). The matriarch is collared so the family’s future whereabouts in Nkhotakota can be tracked.

Vickery himself moves among the elephant mounds, holding a large container that bristles with veterinary drugs and hypodermic needles, “topping up” with a diluted opiate solution any animal that appears to be waking prematurely—eyes beginning to focus, limbs twitching. “He’s a magician of adaptive management,” an African Parks staffer comments.

The prince is huddling next to an elephant that fell a small distance from the rest. His fingers are holding the tip of her extended trunk, which is a combination of nose and mouth, and he is timing her breaths (five to six breaths every minute is optimal). And he seems, despite this not being his first time doing it, mesmerized.

It is an odd, somewhat transgressive sensation to be so close to an unconscious wild animal that, were it awake, would probably kill you. But it’s irresistible. I run my hand along the long tusks, smooth scimitars of ivory; feel the ear, like a vast, veined, rubbery leaf; stroke the undersides of the massive feet, which are unexpectedly clean, smooth, and pleasantly cool to the touch, as if composed not of organic matter but of artfully arranged flat, polished stones.

And then there’s the trunk, which in drugged repose seems an endearing procession of deep, warm wrinkles but in actuality is one of the most formidable instruments in the animal kingdom. It contains some 40,000 muscles (the entire human body has but 639), can detect water from miles away, and helps produce remarkably diverse sounds, many below the range of human hearing—a parallel universe of meanings to which we don’t yet fully have the key.

“People don’t realize,” Harry says quietly, “how amazing elephants are.”

White boys and their toys,” is what, in effect, a Malawian driver says to me, shaking his head at the expense of it all as we watch the chopper swoop and dive repeatedly during a darting operation. “You should go to the poor places in Malawi where people are hungry and tell them about it.”

Later I describe the conversation to Harry. “I completely understand those frustrations,” he says, “which you would have too if you were constantly, desperately trying to provide for yourself and your family.” Malawi is among the least developed and most densely populated nations in Africa, with nearly half of its 17 million people living on $2 per day. The parks are the only green bits in a country otherwise severely deforested for timber and charcoal. “But letting people consume what’s left is not the answer,” Fearnhead warns. “If not protected, the ‘pantry’ will be gone in six months. And then what?”

Building what Patricio Ndadzela, African Parks’ country manager for Malawi, calls “a constituency for conservation” is one of the group’s key initiatives—ensuring that local communities see the long-term benefits of a healthy park (tourism, security, employment), and getting them involved in decisions within its borders. “Otherwise you create an island that will not survive,” Ndadzela adds.

We witness the process in action. One morning a group of solemn Yao tribe chiefs (dressed for the occasion in dark suits and white shirts) arrives, at African Parks’ invitation, for a bull capture. “We need to show them this transparency,” says Craig Reid, Liwonde’s manager, “because we operate in an environment with a lot of corruption. Did you see? They were completely blown away!”

On another day we get a visit from magistrates from the surrounding districts, who have come to see for themselves the effort being made on the animals’ behalf; the hope is that in the future they will take seriously African Parks rangers who deliver suspected poachers to them.

It seems to be working. “African Parks’ coming has really helped matters here,” says Austin Kamanga, one of the magistrates. “If they hadn’t, we would have nothing left to point to. The parks would be gone.” James Manyetera, a district commissioner, sounds a more cautious note: “Results cannot be immediate. We need to interact together, to understand.”

But there are plenty of reasons already for optimism. Currently African Parks manages 10 protected areas in seven countries (totaling more than 20,000 square miles) and is in negotiations for four more. The plan is 20 by 2020. Majete, which we’ll also visit, was the group’s first project (along with Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia) and has rebounded since 2003 from being a “sink” to become one of Malawi’s Big Five destinations. In 2016 it earned $400,000 from tourism (up from zero), it employs 140 people (up from 12), and it has a wildlife population of 12,200 (up from next to nothing). It was figures like those that led the Malawian government in August 2015 to give African Parks the mandates to manage Liwonde and Nkhotakota as well.

In the meantime the optics are Mad Max, like apocalyptic war games played out on a vast stage ringed by distant hills. A long flatbed truck with a hydraulic crane behind the cab and a rubberized conveyor belt surface lumbers up to the capture site, and the delicate hoisting of the elephants (average weight of a female: 2.8 tons) begins. “It looks terrible, I know,” Vickery told us earlier, “but it’s the best way: slung upside down.” By the feet and sometimes also the tusks. Trunks dangle, ears spread out like wings.

Once the elephants are all neatly arranged again on their sides, we humans clamber up onto the truck, sprawling on the recumbent beasts as if they were beanbags, and a slow procession begins to the wake-up box, which is parked for the duration of the move a few hundred yards away, at the edge of the floodplain.

The crew affectionately calls the eye-catching contraption the Frog—a vast black and yellow rectangular steel container supported on rubber wheels with two froglike legs, for balance, on each side. Vickery designed it, Fearnhead says. “It comes in 10 pieces and gets assembled on-site. It’s big enough to hold a cow and a calf, or four medium size elephants. It’s big enough for a mature bull, which can weigh up to seven tons. Until now they could not be translocated, but they’re important for social hierarchy in the wild.” (Without them younger bulls seriously misbehave.)

“Harry, wake them up,” I hear from Vickery after the crane truck has backed up against the Frog and the elephants have been moved inside on the conveyor belt. The prince obliges. One shot per animal of the reversal drug, Naltrexone, then three of tranquilizing drugs of varying durations (three hours, 18 hours, and seven days) to soothe the beasts during their imminent 10 hour drive to Nkhotakota and the first few days after their arrival.

Harry and Vickery emerge swiftly from the box. “You cannot be near an upright tranquilized elephant the way you can a rhino,” Vickery had warned us. “Elephants are incomprehensibly strong. One swipe of the trunk will kill you.” The doors are slammed shut, the transport truck backs up to align itself with the opening at the box’s other end, and we wait.

“This,” Vickery says, “is my favorite part.” Soon it sounds as if a Tyrannosaurus Rex were thrashing about inside. The Frog shakes. It rumbles. It’s those colossal feet slamming against the floor and sides as the elephants heave themselves up. And then, I swear—we’re watching through slits in the roof and sides of the box—they turn and walk backward, as if they rehearsed it, into the transport truck. “They have a reverse gear,” Vickery says, shrugging. “They always back up when they awaken. We took advantage of that. It means they can disembark later facing forward.”

It’s as if nature, eons ago, foresaw this.

I barely notice as the truck, an armed scout on board, pulls away, Nkhotakota bound, a curtain of fine dust billowing behind it. It’s only midmorning, but I’m ready, I confess, for the drinking hour. And I might as well confess something else: I didn’t actually pull myself up onto the platform of the crane truck. Stymied momentarily by camera and notebook, I was suddenly, without a word, lifted up by the wrists. Much like the elephants, but thankfully not upside down.

“Harry,” Vickery says, in what is probably his ultimate accolade, “is a quick-thinking individual. Which in a crisis situation makes all the difference.”

The next few days continue in an adrenaline-fueled blur of action. We capture another family group of 11. Then, over two mornings, nine bulls. In Majete, four hours away by car, we dart two dominant male lions, named Sapitwa and Chimwala, who need their old tracking collars replaced with fresh ones. And we capture a black rhino, one of only nine left in Liwonde, and move him to Majete both to increase the park’s number of breeding bulls and for his safety.

Majete has a 90-mile electrified perimeter fence watched by 40 patrolmen, who check it twice daily in teams of two, plus 37 rangers working in daily and four night sleepover shifts. (“How amazing is this?” Vickery exclaims about the rehabilitated park. “A miracle!”) African Parks, in its meticulous and long-sighted way, is putting all of these measures into place at Liwonde and Nkhotakota as well.

The rhino’s name is Namagogodo, and he repaid us for our efforts by behaving the entire time like an enraged cyclops. “They are born to fight everything,” says Uys. Vickery’s leg gets smashed between the drugged yet careening animal and the trunk of a mopane tree. (“I’ll live.”) Harry’s hands are bloodied. “When that animal wakes up,” he quips, “he’ll go searching for women.” Reprobate.

One day Harry and I are talking at sunset in the open, thatch-roofed restaurant of Mvuu Lodge as the grunts of the hippos basking by the bank grow ever louder and more percussive, accompanied by other vocalizations I cannot identify— wild things revving up for the night. Being in Africa, Harry observes, “is like being plugged into the earth. You leave this place with a real appreciation of what it means to be alive.” He is leaving in the morning for two days to attend a family wedding, and we’re wrapping things up. No one is paying us the least bit of attention. I’m curious: What, especially, drew him 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…”

He pauses, his reasons seemingly both profoundly private and passionately planetary. “This is where I feel more like myself than anywhere else in the world. I wish I could spend more time in Africa. I have this intense sense of complete relaxation and normality here. To not get recognized, to lose myself in the bush with what I would 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 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.”

He envisions for himself, it seems, a life of commitment to the cause. “Everyone has a different opinion; every country has a different way of doing things. 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. You know what Stevie Wonder said: ‘You need teamwork to make the dream work.’ I use that a lot.”

It’s my last night in Malawi, and the African Parks team is serving sundowners in the temporarily unoccupied royal compound— the tent is bigger than the others, I now notice, with a little awning, and behind a thatch and bamboo privacy screen is a spacious stretch of riverbank and a particularly fetching view of the Shire. Royalty does have some privileges.

“It’s a hippo highway right through here, you know,” Vickery says. Hmm. We are sitting in a half-moon of canvas chairs a few feet from the water, and as darkness falls the grunts are sounding louder and definitely closer. Hippos, which kill more people in Africa than any other animal, come out at night to graze. I take a deep breath and focus on the giant kingfisher I see in the gloaming diving for his dinner.

The elephants we captured this morning, I reflect, are just about now arriving in Nkhotakota and being released into the temporary 62-square-mile fenced sanctuary prepared for them by African Parks—pleasantly buzzed, for sure, on the tranquilizers they’ve been given. Me, I’m glad for my scotch. This short week has filled me to the brim with things that have no counterpart in the world I am going back to. There’s a Ndebele proverb: “The eye that has seen something will see it again.” I hope that’s so.

And I think, too, about something else Prince Harry said. “These are very special places, but they are islands with a sea of people around them. I do worry. I think everyone should worry. We need to look after them, because otherwise our children will not have a chance to see what we have seen. This is God’s test: If we can’t save some animals in a wilderness area, what else can’t we do?”