The call came through on a hot afternoon as I was standing on the platform at Clapham Junction railway station in south-west London. Would I like to interview the Duke of Cambridge for an ITV documentary in early August? It was to be the first interview after the impending royal birth and the topic was Prince William’s passion for Africa and his desire to celebrate publicly the unsung heroes of conservation, who risk their lives on a daily basis to save its wildlife.
Well, it wasn’t hard to say yes. Apart from being curious to meet Prince William as a new father, I’d visited Africa several times and knew the shocking statistics. The elephant population has fallen by 65 per cent to under 450,000 in the last 30 years. Cheetah numbers have dropped below 12,000. Rhinos, which have been around for 65 million years, might be extinct by the end of the century, and there are fewer than 20,000 lions in the wild.
Despite the demands of being a new dad, William was desperately keen to talk about the destruction of Africa’s wildlife and he booked time out of his paternity leave to do so. Since becoming Royal Patron of Tusk, a Dorset-based charity devoted to animal conservation in Africa, the Prince has made regular trips to the continent highlighting the need for action. On 12 September, in a ceremony in London, he will present the first Tusk Conservation Awards to campaigners and workers in the field. Alongside him, and offering her support, will be the Duchess of Cambridge.
“It’s horrifying... It’s hard to put into words, the depth of sadness that I would feel if they became extinct,” he told me. “I want the Awards to be credible in the conservation world and for those who receive them to realise how fantastic their work has been. They are leading the way. Now is the time to galvanise and energise all the people who want to help.”
My interview for the ITV documentary Prince William’s Passion: New Father, New Hope was set to take place at Kensington Palace at the beginning of August. Director Dominic Ozane had been out to Africa to film the work of the Awards nominees and we had edited clips to show Prince William. The only possible hitch was if the royal baby decided to make a late entrance!
Like the rest of the country I tuned into the news regularly, waiting to see if the Duchess of Cambridge had gone into labour. At one point it looked like the interview would have to be postponed. Then finally, on 21 July, the world got the news that the Duchess had been admitted to hospital. There was a collective sigh of relief when Prince George was safely delivered and the TV cameras witnessed his first appearance on the hospital steps two days later.
Watching the proud smiles of the new mum and dad, it was hard not to reflect on the future life of this tiny baby. I knew Prince William would want to introduce him to Africa as soon as he could. William’s fallen for Africa, its people, wildlife, smells and sounds, partly because it’s a place where he can be himself and embrace real life away from the cameras.
On the morning of our interview a relaxed Prince William arrived, dressed casually in jeans and polo shirt with the Tusk logo. Smiling broadly, he had just returned from registering the birth of his son. He looked well and extremely happy, though he did admit that he wasn’t getting much sleep!
He quickly got to work, intently watching the footage and the work of the nominees. His face softened when he saw the landscape and people. “For me, it’s a sense of freedom. Being out in the middle of nowhere in Africa, looking at the projects, seeing the beauty of nature and the natural world, is just phenomenal. I love the fact you can go into any village in Kenya or the east coast of Africa and just walk in and have a chat with someone and they have absolutely no idea who you are. Usually my Swahili stops after about two sentences but we muddle through in English!”
Africa has been in William’s blood for generations. It was in Kenya, at Treetops Lodge, that his grandmother received the news that her father, George VI, had passed away and she was now Queen. His grandfather, Prince Philip, was the first President of the World Wildlife Fund UK and passed the mantle to his father, Prince Charles. Most memorably, his mother, Princess Diana, championed the cause of HIV orphans and campaigned against land mines.
“The legacy is quite a daunting one, following on from my grandfather and father. It just sort of happened... My mother would come back with all these stories, full of excitement and passion for what she had been doing and I used to sit there, quite a surprised little boy, taking it all in – and the infectious enthusiasm and energy she had rubbed off on me.”
William first went to Africa as a teenager, and placed his hand on an elephant as it lay, darted, awaiting relocation. “It’s just the most incredible sight, to get on the ground and see it and feel its chest going up and down as it’s breathing and you’re sort of looking after it. It was incredible.”
He later returned, spending part of his gap year in the bush and regularly camping out. “I’d usually be worried about something coming into my sleeping bag! I’m not so good with spiders and snakes, but the bigger stuff I don’t mind. And the smells and the noises get every one of your senses going. Being out in the middle of nowhere, I loved it, I really did... stars 360 degrees around you, sleeping on the ground, and getting back to where we all come from... it’s quite moving.” He was to return again in 2010, when he proposed to his future wife on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
Throughout our interview William acknowledges the daunting challenges facing Africa and its wildlife. The poaching trade in horn and ivory is worth billions every year, with constant demand from the Asian market and the involvement of terrorist and drug cartels. Poachers have become extremely calculating, using helicopters and satellite tracking as well as AK47 rifles. Up to 100 elephants can be slaughtered and butchered in one night.
“The way they are doing things is getting more and more sophisticated,” he says. “As soon as you find a way of dealing with it, they find another. Education is such a huge, important issue, to educate everyone involved in the illegal markets about the damage that can be done and the implications of what they are doing.”
William is clearly a sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful young man. I asked him how often he thought of Africa in his day-to-day life? “I do regularly daydream, and Africa is definitely one of the places I go to. I’ve got hundreds of animals on my iPhone, noises and sounds of the bush, so if I’m having a stressful day, I’ll put a buffalo, a cricket or a newt on and it takes you back instantly to the bush. And it does completely settle me down.”
But the plight of the villagers who live among the wildlife is not lost on him either. A rampaging elephant can destroy a field of crops in the blink of an eye. “We have to remember how desperately poor these guys are... this is all they have known, living in these communities with their cattle and goats, and they will protect them to their last breath. Their water and grazing is in very short supply. Conservation has to have these communities’ blessing.”
Fatherhood has, he says, reinforced his emotional connection to Africa. “The wildlife is incredibly vulnerable and I feel a real protective instinct, more so now that I am a father, which is why I get emotional about it... you want to stand up for what is very vulnerable and needs protecting. Elephants, rhinos and many other animals that are persecuted don’t have a voice.”
I ask him which is his favourite animal? “Ha, that’s a hard one! I have to say I do love cheetahs, they are the most docile, awesome creatures. They can be lying perfectly quietly, and then... an absolute killing machine. It’s the elegance of them, they way they look at you... they would come quite high on my list.”
But then he goes very quiet, watching pictures of a butchered rhino bleeding to death. Tears well in his eyes and he confesses to everything being changed by the birth of his son. “The last few weeks for me have been a very different emotional experience – something I never thought I would feel for myself. I find, even though it’s only been a short period, that a lot of things affect me now – when I see a clip like that there’s so much emotion and so much feeling wrapped up into conservation and environment. It’s just so powerful. You’d think something that big and that’s been around so long, would have worked out a way to avoid being caught and persecuted, but they really don’t. I do feel anger, but I also feel really great hope that we will overcome this as a human race. The more we raise the issue and the more education there is... I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t think there was a chance it could be successful. Poaching is now probably the worst I’ve ever known it, but I am not the kind of guy to give up.
“Africa,” he smiles, “emotionally and mentally has affected me. It’s magical. Every time I go back it brings out new things. This is a lifelong commitment and I’ll always be involved... no matter what.”
And the legacy for Prince George? He laughs. “At the moment, the only legacy I want to pass on to him is to sleep more and maybe not to have to change his nappy quite so many times, but as he gets older I’m sure he’ll pick up the bug of conservation.”
As he leaves to get back to his wife and baby son, I wonder how long it will be before the animal noises on his iPhone are being played in the royal nursery?
Jane Treays’s full interview is on Sunday at 6pm on ITV
PRINCE WILLIAM ON...
“The last few weeks have been a very different emotional experience; something I never thought I would feel”
“At the moment the only legacy I want to pass on to him is to sleep more”
“The infectious enthusiasm and energy she had rubbed off on me"
“I love the fact you can go into any village in Kenya... and they have no idea who you are”
“I’ve got hundreds of animals on my iPhone. If I’m having a stressful day I’ll put one on and I’m instantly back in the bush”
“I love cheetahs; they are the most awesome creatures”