It might sometimes seem as though royalty, with all their privilege, can get away with things that us normal people just can’t. So when it emerged that Prince Harry had been spray painting endangered elephants in Africa it no doubt raised a few eyebrows. In fact, one headline read, “Prince Harry caught ‘tipping’ elephants in Africa!” But the real story was not quite so sinister.
The 500 Elephants project is one of the biggest wildlife relocation projects around in terms of both size and number. Indeed, the conservation campaign will see thousands of animals, including hundreds of elephants, moved from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. The journey will also involve a 200-mile trek from the south of Malawi to the north.
Conservation organization African Parks and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife manages all three of the protected areas involved. Liwonde National Park and the Majete Wildlife Reserve have, in fact, both enjoyed major successes in elephant conservation in recent years. For instance, Liwonde boasts the greatest elephant population in Malawi, while Majete is classed as a “Big Five” reserve. That means the latter is home to leopards, lions, African elephants, buffalos and rhinos.
Due to their successes, however, both parks are now considered to be full. After all, there are 800 elephants in Liwonde and 400 elephants in Majete. And as a result, the herds are mowing through wildlife habitats and causing human-elephant conflicts as well.
So those animals considered “surplus” to the two southern parks will now be taken to revitalize Nkhotakota, Malawi’s oldest national park. At present, the area has a small elephant population. And expectations are therefore high that the translocated elephants will bolster the site as a popular tourist attraction and help the local economy.
So why the major conservation effort? Well, African elephants are categorized as “vulnerable” on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In recent years, many species, including elephants, have faced a number of threats from habitat loss and poaching. And unfortunately for elephant populations, entire herds of families are being wiped from certain parts of Africa.
One hundred years ago, for instance, there were an estimated 10 million elephants roaming Africa. More recently, though, those numbers are down to 450,000, and every year 40,000 elephants are killed for their ivory. With that in mind, the 500 Elephants project aims to improve elephant conservation.
The ambitious project began in July 2016 when 250 elephants were moved from Liwonde to their new home in Nkhotakota. And the beautiful beasts were accompanied by a very important person on their journey. Yes, Prince Harry joined the animals and African Parks to assist on the first phase of the translocation mission.
The British royal spent three weeks working on the project alongside a team of dedicated volunteers. And he hoped his involvement would bring more attention to the plight of African elephants. Of course, the prince was also keen to get his hands dirty on the front line of the conservation efforts.
Incredible photographs and video footage from Prince Harry’s time in Malawi show how he was involved in all aspects of the relocation. From helping to coax tranquilized elephants onto lorries to tagging individual animals, he immersed himself in the project. And he appeared to have loved absolutely every minute of it.
One image shows Prince Harry spray painting an elephant calf as it lay on its side. “Marking one of the young males so that he is easily identifiable when the family group is released back into the bush and we can keep them together. The spray paint disappears after a few days,” he explained in an accompanying caption.
In another picture, Prince Harry and a group of volunteers appear to be trying to push an elephant over. “This young male was fighting the drug and headed towards the trees, which would have made it very difficult for us to get him on the truck. All directions were taken from Kester Vickery from Conservation Solutions and Andre Uys, the vet,” the royal explained.
“This big bull (male) elephant refused to lie down after it had been darted with a tranquilizer,” Prince Harry wrote alongside a third image. “After about seven minutes, the drug began to take effect, and the elephant became semi-comatose, but it continued to shuffle for a while! They have a tendency to hone in on forests, rivers and people when in this state, [and] this is us trying to slow him down.”
Although the process looks stressful for the animals, Prince Harry was reassured by the results. “This is the most efficient and least invasive way of [moving the elephants],” he said. “I can tell you after three weeks [that] there’s zero stress on these animals and they’re going from one beautiful place to another beautiful place.”
And it wasn’t just elephants Prince Harry encountered in Malawi. According to African Parks, the former soldier was also involved in the movement of rhinoceros and a number of buffalo, antelope and zebra. He even helped to fit new GPS collars on three lions.
Speaking of his royal guest, CEO of African Parks Peter Fearnhead said, “He has extensive field experience and was extremely comfortable with the animals, whether helping an anesthetized elephant to the ground and monitoring its breathing to affixing radio collars. He played a vital role in many aspects of this giant operation, which requires not only all hands on deck, but a vigilance he exudes and a commitment to the cause he embodies.”
A statement from the prince explained why the 500 Elephants Project was so important. “Human populations in Southern Africa have increased annually by an average of 1.16 percent from 1960 to today, from 73 million to 320 million. There is no question at all that Africa’s wildlife will be increasingly susceptible to growing human populations and their requirements for land.”
“Elephants simply can’t roam freely like they used to, without coming into conflict with communities, or being threatened by poaching and persecution,” the prince continued. “There has to be a balance between the numbers of animals and the available habitat. Just how nature intended it.”
And while he’s no stranger to exclusive experiences and amazing sights, Prince Harry was clearly touched by his experience with the 500 Elephants project. “It’s amazing to see such unbelievable creatures being moved in a way you could never even dream of. To be with elephants, such massive beasts, is a unique experience,” he said.
So while the first phase of the relocation project went well, there are still another 250 elephants waiting to be moved in summer 2017. And hopefully now that these elephants have been given the royal treatment, more people will take note of the importance of elephant conservation as well.