By Fred Hauptfuhrer
December 21, 1981 12:00 PM

“It would be very nice to be able to claim I had a great flash of inspiration or something,” Britain’s Prince Philip shrugs, explaining his longtime dedication to environmental causes. “I simply grew up in a situation where people were naturally conservationists; they enjoyed the country. “A former president of the Zoological Society of London, the Prince is credited with personally helping to save a Western Australian species facing extinction—the noisy scrub bird—by putting in a word for the tiny creature with the Premier. Last May Philip became the international president of the World Wildlife Fund, with headquarters in Gland, Switzerland. The Prince was schooled in Scotland, where he captained his cricket and hockey teams, and served on battleships and destroyers during World War II. Of noble birth (he is a Mountbatten and, as a descendant of Queen Victoria, is related to most of the royal houses of Europe), Philip became the Duke of Edinburgh shortly before he married King George VI’s daughter, Elizabeth, in 1947. As his son, Charles, and daughter-in-law, Diana, prepare for a royal birth, Prince Philip (who now drives around London in a nonpolluting electric car) granted Fred Hauptfuhrer of PEOPLE an hour-long interview. In His Royal Highness’ gilt-ceilinged library at Buckingham Palace, they discussed his new role and the challenge facing the world’s fragile ecosphere.

What do you consider the leading threat to the environment?

Human population growth is probably the single most serious long-term threat to survival. We’re in for a major disaster if it isn’t curbed—not just for the natural world, but for the human world. The more people there are, the more resources they’ll consume, the more pollution they’ll create, the more fighting they’ll do. We have no option. If it isn’t controlled voluntarily, it will be controlled involuntarily by an increase in disease, starvation and war.

Can you give me an example?

I was in Sri Lanka recently, where a United Nations project set out in the late 1940s to eradicate malaria. It’s an island and it was therefore possible to destroy the mosquito carrying the disease. What people didn’t realize was that malaria was actually controlling the growth of the population. The consequence was that within about 20 years the population doubled. Now they’ve got to find something for all those people to do and some way to feed them.

Is birth control part of the solution?

Yes, but you can’t legislate these problems away. You’ve got to get people to understand the need for it: the more important people, the ones who have responsibilities and can actually do something about the problem. Those who have no responsibilities have got to do it because they’re at the receiving end. They’ve got to accept the measures.

In terms of wildlife, do you favor complete protection?

Not necessarily. Conservation and protection—complete protection—are different. Trying to maintain a viable continuing population may mean total protection, or control, or creating an artificial balance of wildlife in an area. The seal cull in Canada, for instance, raises the temperatures of the animal welfare people because of the way the cull is conducted—clubbing young seals to death. From a conservation point of view, there is little significance because the cull is monitored and limited and the population is in no danger.

How does the World Wildlife Fund work?

Its function is to raise money for conservation projects proposed to it by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN is a very extensive body with tentacles all over the place. At the moment we’re raising between $7 million and $8 million this year, which I think is peanuts when UNESCO has $300 million to spend. Just think what conservation could do if we just had, let’s say, $30 million. It would transform the picture.

The IUCN has a global conservation policy. What are its components?

One is conducting first aid operations where conditions like drought or overcutting of timber put sudden great pressure on a local species. The second is dealing with long-term global problems. This is the preventive medicine—dealing, say, with the erosion of rain forests. The third is education and public relations—education of the younger generation, persuasion of the older generation.

An Australian reporter, after interviewing you recently, called you “haughty, on the edge of arrogance and elitism.” Is that really you?

He said that, did he? Well, it’s up to you to decide. Probably what it was, I suspect, is that there’s a very strong militant element in the conservation movement there, and he was disappointed I didn’t come out and say, “Yes, of course, clobber everybody, stop everything.” He was probably furious I didn’t.

In consideration of public sensitivities, the Queen exercises discretion about hunting, while you and the Prince of Wales step right out and do it. What is your view toward hunting?

In this country “hunting” is hunting a fox or a stag on a horse with hounds. Walking on your feet, as a rifleman shooting at deer, is called stalking. Shooting birds such as pheasant or duck is known as shooting. I don’t hunt in the sense that I don’t get on a horse and follow hounds either behind a fox or a stag. I do get on my feet and walk out onto the hills of Scotland and select and shoot a stag. I do deer-stalk. I shoot birds, but on the basis of taking out excess population. The numbers are really very small.

Diana, the Princess of Wales, was criticized in the British press recently for shooting a stag. Did the outrage over the incident surprise you?

No, it shows again how easy it is to create an emotional response to something perfectly rational. In the first place, they made a mistake. The argument was that she hadn’t killed the animal cleanly, which wasn’t true. Secondly, that somehow she shouldn’t be doing it. The fact is, the deer population in Scotland has got to be controlled or they will eat out the area.

Is the United States in the dock for its environmental record?

I don’t think it’s in the dock. It’s got a very, very good conservation record. There is a very strong self-corrective mechanism in a democratic society when people do anything to excess, and that has certainly taken effect in the United States. The U.S. makes a large contribution. For instance, it’s working with Brazil to save the rain forests and paying much of the cost of the panda project in China [to save the species from extinction]. Scientists at Cornell University have been trying to get the peregrine falcon reestablished in the Eastern United States.

So, overall, we have a good record?

Yes. Don’t forget that the first national parks were set up in the United States, and that was a long time ago. The Fish and Wildlife Service also has been going a long time. Teddy Roosevelt was a conservationist in the modern sense, and in a very significant way. The U.S. also has a good record of people pointing out where damage has been done. Rachel Carson, who decried the consequences of using DDT, is a classic example.

How do you rate the conservation practiced in Communist countries?

Put it this way: I don’t think Marx or Lenin ever said anything about conservation of nature. Yet a lot of it is very good. In most cases, it’s run very efficiently. Being an authoritarian system, they can say, “Look, this is a reserve.” They don’t have to worry about the consequences. But now that the agricultural revolution is beginning to catch up with them, they are facing pressures on wildlife that they didn’t have before.

Do you have any criticisms?

Where Communism doesn’t help, of course, is in fomenting revolutions, which have a disastrous effect on conservation. The occupation of Afghanistan, for instance, must have brought conservation measures there absolutely to a halt. Uganda is in a terrible state because of Amin and the subsequent revolution. I can’t believe things are going very well in Namibia, Zambia, Vietnam, Somalia or Ethiopia.

Is consumerism contributing to the decay of the environment?

If the demand for things like ivory, rhino horn and alligator bags threatens to exterminate the supplying creatures, that is over-consumption. Otherwise it’s of no consequence.

What about consumerism in the sense of being more thrifty, making resources go farther?

Irrelevant, provided again you’re not talking about consuming resources which are liable to become extinct. Conserving oil, say, is not going to make a blind bit of difference toward saving the tiger or the bumble bee.

How can companies that harm the environment be curbed?

You don’t curb them. You’ve got to convert them. Make them see the consequences of their actions.

How would you reconcile the conflict between environmentalism and economic development?

That is a very difficult situation, and people take such entrenched attitudes. Militant conservationists want to stop everything. Governments make all sorts of promises about social services to their people that they can’t keep, so they look around for natural or mineral resources to exploit. You’ve got to tread a path between the two.