Prince Philip, who has passed away at the age of 99, is being remembered for his pioneering work promoting environmental causes, having encouraged conservation in his singular style throughout his life and long before it became fashionable.
The Queen’s late husband toured the world to draw attention to the plight of wildlife endangered by poaching, deforestation and pollution, photographing seals in Antarctica, feeding elephants in Africa and posing with pandas in China.
“We depend on being part of the web of life, we depend on every other living thing on this planet, just as much as they depend on us,” he once reflected.
“If we as humans have got this power of life and death, not just life and death but extinction and survival, we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense. Why make something extinct if we don’t have to?”
The late Duke of Edinburgh helped found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 1961 and the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1963, becoming president of the former between 1981 and 1996 and authoring several books about the threats faced by many of the planet’s most exquisite creatures, notably Wildlife Crisis in 1970.
“His importance to conservation worldwide has been absolutely huge,” naturalist David Attenborough has said of the prince.
“You can go anywhere in the world and he will know where you have to make the connection, where you have to put the pressure, what you have to do. He’s very practical in those terms.”
“My grandfather’s well ahead of his time.”
Famously forthright, Prince Philip addressed the Conference on World Pollution in Strasbourg, France, on 9 February 1970 and told his audience: “It’s totally useless for a lot of well-meaning people to wring their hands in conference and to point out the dangers of pollution or the destruction of the countryside if no one is willing or capable of taking any action.”
But, ever the realist, he also noted that a degree of political pragmatism would be necessary because: “Even naturalists drive cars occasionally.”
He again called for action before the Australian Conservation Foundation on 17 October 1973, foreseeing harmful fractures within the movement when united action to save the environment was needed.
“I think it’s important for every faction in conservation to realise that we are all part of the same popular conservation movement and that, in spite of differences of emphasis within the movement, our only hope of making any impression on public, industrial or government opinion and outlook is to do our homework and to do our best to work together,” he said.
While the Duke’s love of the natural world was unquestionable, contradictions in his conduct did emerge and raised eyebrows.
In 1961, the same year he became president of the WWF’s British National Appeal, he and the Queen took part in a tiger and rhino hunt during a royal tour of Nepal, riding elephants through Meghauli in the company of King Mahendra.
More shockingly, they posed wearing safari suits with the body of an eight-foot tiger in Ranthambore, India, that same summer with the Maharajah of Jaipur, reportedly killed by Philip along with a crocodile and six mountain sheep.
“In the India of 1961, the tiger was still seen as a pest and a very desirable trophy,” royal biographer Robert Hardman explained in his book Queen of the World (2018).
“There was certainly no secrecy about the exercise. Day and night, the Queen, the Duke and their hosts waited in a machine or tree platform while 200 beaters scoured the jungle below. Finally, on their third outing, the Duke bagged a tigress just as it was time to return to Delhi.”
Her skin was later shipped home to Windsor Castle.
Prince Philip later snapped at a reporter who mentioned the episode and insisted the tiger was lame and had merely been put out of its misery.
He was also an advocate of fox hunting and supported the shooting of game birds on British moorland, saying it was necessary to “crop” such species, while stressing: “You don’t want to exterminate them.”
He explained this apparent mixed-messaging in an interview with the BBC’s Fiona Bruce in 2011, hotly refuting her suggestion that he might identify with the “green” movement.
“I think that there’s a difference between being concerned for the conservation of nature and being a bunny-hugger,” he told her.
“When I was president of the WWF, I got more letters from people about the way animals were treated in zoos than about any concern for the survival of a species. People can’t get their heads around the idea of a species surviving, you know, they’re more concerned about how you treat a donkey in Sicily or something.”
Although many contemporary environmentalists might have found the late Duke something of an unlikely ally, his efforts to promote the natural world were considerable and his warnings have been sadly borne out with the passage of time.
“If only the leaders of developed countries, particularly those in politics, commerce and industry had taken his warning seriously, then the effect of climate change would not have been as damaging today,” mourned The Borneo Post in May 2017, marking the occasion of Prince Philip’s retirement from public duties with a salute to his efforts.