OPN 191004 Prince Harry-1570184531908
Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, helps a local schoolboy to plant a tree at the Chobe National Park, on day four of the royal tour of Africa, in Botswana September 26, 2019 Image Credit: Reuters

My entry into this area of conservation was a little unorthodox! I’ve been lucky enough to visit this continent (Africa) continually over the last 22 years, and thanks to a special group of friends ranging from veterinarians and park rangers, to scientists and safari guides.

I’ve been given an incredibly unique perspective and education on some of the greatest issues facing Africa’s communities and wildlife. In the last 10 years I have used that knowledge and advice handed down to me to meet, listen and learn from those who live in some of the world’s harshest conditions and understand what it is they so desperately need to thrive.

It wasn’t until 2016 that I found African Parks, which took my understanding and respect to a whole new level. While I am not an expert in this field, I have been given the great privilege of a platform which I hope I can use wisely. Conservation fails unless you put people at the heart of the solution and for far too long, that hasn’t been the case.

In many areas, our natural assets have been, and continue to be, exploited. I have no problem in admitting that we are all part of the problem in some way, but a lot of us simply aren’t aware of the damage that is being caused.

Huge forests have been destroyed to be exported without enough consideration for regeneration. Rivers and deltas have been overfished in an unsustainable manner — mainly to sell to neighbouring countries who have outfished their own stocks. This only benefits the few who are selling them and leaves the communities that depend on them with nothing.

Elephants and rhinos are being poached towards extinction while funding international crime, and the bush meat trade is destroying what’s left of the collapsing biodiversity that is so critical to remaining intact.

Much of southern Africa, for instance, has been on fire for the past decade, with the intensity reaching new heights this past year, as we’ve seen while traversing the continent this past week.

The focus in recent months has rightly been on the Amazon, but vast ecosystems across Africa are continually being set alight.

What used to be a seasonal and natural occurrence has now become a habit without a purpose, especially during the dry season. Some use it to drive the few animals left into traps, others believe it will produce green grass for their livestock.

The actual results are catastrophic as I have learnt from the likes of Steve Boyes at National Geographic, and have seen for my own eyes.

In the meantime, communities need food, they need jobs, they need energy and they need opportunities. But perhaps most importantly, they need to see actual benefit from their existing natural assets.

At the moment there is a total disconnect between the people and the land on which they live. They currently don’t have alternatives to provide for themselves. It’s survival, but it’s not sustainable in the long run, so at what cost for the next generation?

Based on what I’ve learnt over the years and the experts that I’ve met, one of the greatest opportunities to deliver this balance is ecotourism, but specifically community-based ecotourism

- Prince Harry

From what I’ve seen on the ground, it is when communities are incentivised to safeguard and manage their natural assets — be it water, trees or wildlife — that everyone benefits. The natural order is restored and the symbiotic relationship between humans and wildlife is rebalanced. This may well sound hippy to some, but we cannot afford to have a “them or us” mentality.

Humans and animals and their habitats fundamentally need to coexist, or within the next 10 years, our problems across the globe will become even more unmanageable.

As one spiritual visionary neatly summed up: “Every worm, every insect, every animal is working for the ecological well-being of the planet. Only we humans, that claim to be the most intelligent species here, are not doing that.”

We need to learn from our past mistakes and support and educate those who are responsible for protecting the very assets that they and we depend upon, and we have a responsibility to provide opportunities.

We should be celebrating the vision and leadership of governments and inspiring individuals, who are utilising public-private partnerships to integrate conservation into their development agendas. Based on what I’ve learnt over the years and the experts that I’ve met, one of the greatest opportunities to deliver this balance is ecotourism, but specifically community-based ecotourism.

Tourism which allows the communities to be equal financial partners through mentorship, so that they can see the investment flow back to their families, providing jobs, health care and a future.

Essentially, I am personally driven by the desire to help restore the balance between humans and nature.

Nature teaches us the importance of a circular system, one where nothing goes to waste and everything has a role to play. If we interfere with it, rather than work with it, the system will break down.

Conservation used to be a specialist area, driven by science. But now it is fundamental to our survival and we must overcome greed, apathy and selfishness if we are to make real progress.

The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2019

Prince Harry is the younger son of Charles, Prince of Wales, UK.