By Richard Palmer, John Ingham
Their ancestors shot tigers and other animals for sport but inside an ornate mansion in London next week Princes Charles and William will try to save the world’s most majestic beasts from extinction.
Consumed by a joint passion for conservation, the heir to the throne and his elder son, the Duke of Cambridge, will bring world leaders together at Lancaster House in an effort to end the slaughter.
They hope to persuade governments around the globe to produce a co-ordinated international plan to curb a burgeoning £6billion illegal trade in wildlife that is fuelling a poaching epidemic threatening the future of several species, including tigers, rhinos and elephants.
The scale of the slaughter is astonishing. More than 30,000 elephants are dying each year at the hands of poachers hunting their ivory tusks to sell for jewellery and trinkets mainly in China and south east Asia, where rapidly rising incomes have fuelled a boom in status symbols.
An elephant population estimated at 1.3 million in 1979 has dwindled to 400,000 now in the face of the onslaught.
A world rhino population that stood at 500,000 at the start of the 20th century has fallen to 29,000 in the wild today. Record numbers, more than 1,000 a year, are being killed in South Africa, their last major stronghold, mainly because their horns are valued in traditional Chinese medicine.
And the world’s tiger population, estimated at more than 100,000 80 years ago, is down to 3,500 because of the trade in the animals’ body parts in Asia.
It’s a trade that is helping to fund terrorism, according to politicians and experts. The Somali militant group Al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the Westgate shopping mall attack that left 67 dead in Nairobi, Kenya, last year is said to be raking in £360,000 a month from smuggling elephant tusks to China.
In east Africa ivory is fetching £80 a kilo for the poachers but in China it is sold for £2,000 a kilo.
“These animals are being butchered for trinkets, nothing more noble than that, toothpicks, chopsticks, nothing more special, nothing more important,” explains the environmental campaigner and Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith.
“The truth is that when a consumer buys a piece of ivory, they might as well be putting money in a collection tin for Al Qaeda or buying guns for (Ugandan warlord) Joseph Kony’s slave children or Sudan’s vicious Janjaweed.”
The illegal trade has shot up the political agenda since Charles and William convened a conference of experts in London last May to discuss the problems and prepare the groundwork for next week’s events.
Father and son combinations don’t come much more influential than two future kings, even these days. So their drawing power has ensured that heads of state, government leaders and other senior figures from at least 50 countries are expected to attend the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at Lancaster House, a government hospitality centre that stands next to Clarence House.
Built in 1825 by George III’s second son Frederick, the grand old Duke of York, Lancaster House has played host to several major conferences that have shaped with varying degrees of success the future of Africa.
They have included three conferences in the early 1960s that produced a constitution for modern independent Kenya and one in 1979 that created Zimbabwe out of white-ruled Rhodesia.
Charles, 65, and William, 31, will hope that the dignitaries who will be marched up and down the Lancaster House grand staircase that featured in the film The King’s Speech, will emerge with an agreement that will take the first steps towards preserving big game across Africa and Asia.
“Either we take action to stem the trade or we will run out of the animals. There is no other outcome possible,” William warned in May.
“I sincerely hope that my generation is not the first on this planet to consider elephants, rhinos or tigers as historical creatures in the same category as the dodo.”
It was his father’s idea to bring world leaders together after discussions with the delightfully named President Ali Bongo of Gabon, who has taken a tough stance to try to halt poaching in his country.
Determined to make the monarchy in the 21st century more than just about ribbon-cutting, Charles wants to use his “convening powers” to bring people together to find ways of preserving and creating a better world.
“The idea behind the conference came from his discussions with Ali Bongo,” says one royal aide who points out that it fitted nicely with the British Government’s agenda to halt the trade. “I think there will be an element of meeting of minds. It’s obviously an issue that the Government will have been looking at but the idea of a global conference came about through the Prince of Wales.”
William, who loves Africa so much he uses the sound of animal noises from the bush on his iPhone to calm himself down on stressful days, is equally passionate about the cause.
Finding his own voice to speak out on serious issues now he is in his 30s, he has made conservation one of the key things for which he wants to be remembered. Africa, where he proposed to Kate and where he hopes to take their infant son Prince George in the not too distant future, is in his blood. He and his brother Harry can get lost there, enjoying the anonymity that they crave.
“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,” he says.
Both he and his father have inherited their passion for conservation from Prince Philip, a countryman whose love of shooting has never got in the way of his desire to protect endangered wildlife.
“I think that there’s a difference between being concerned for the conservation of nature and being a bunny hugger,” he declared in an interview to mark his 90th birthday almost three years ago. His views have changed with the times since January 26, 1961, the day he shot a tiger while on an official visit to India with the Queen.
In 1911 the Queen’s grandfather, George V shot 39 tigers, 18 rhinos and four sloth bears in a series of hunts between December 16 and 28 in Nepal. In 1921 the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, shot 17 tigers, 10 rhinos, two leopards and two bears in the same country.
But by the late 1920s Edward had become disgusted by the scale of slaughter on African hunts and set about changing attitudes, pioneering the idea later followed by George VI of using a safari not to kill big game but to appreciate the animals’ beauty and majesty.
Recognising the power of the royals to influence public opinion, modern conservationists are eager to see Charles and William promote their cause by persuading ministers to make it a priority, supporting new technology to detect poachers and fronting ad campaigns to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products.
Tomorrow the two future kings will release a video message aimed at influencing world opinion.William has already appeared in public service messages with David Beckham and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming urging the Chinese public to stop buying medicine and trinkets made from smuggled products.