What’s ancient, slow-moving and leaves a trail of crap in its wake? No, not Britain’s royal family; the African elephant. The two are easily confused. The royals never forget and are an endangered species that mates in captivity. Elephants are leathery, photogenic and likely to inspire misplaced sentiment. No wonder Meghan Markle’s first venture as Hollywood royalty should be as voiceover artiste for Elephant, a Disney documentary about elephants in Botswana. But this, like Meghan’s in-laws, is as rich, white and privileged as it gets.
The plot of Elephant is the usual cheap anthropomorphism. Gaia the indomitable matriarch must lead her herd hundreds of miles across the Kalahari Desert to a lush green paradise. The human interest in this postcolonial Babar the Elephant is that mother Shani must shepherd her cute son Jomo through a gauntlet of heat, hunger and predators. Presumably Jomo is named after the corrupt Kenyan autocrat Jomo Kenyatta because Kenyatta was handy with a fly-swatter, and not because his wife Ngina was implicated in illegal ivory smuggling. Presumably Gaia has been reading James Lovelock and the Guardian.
The Duchess of Sussex might have packed her trunk, but she hasn’t said goodbye to the circus. She has, though, exchanged one Magic Kingdom for another, more powerful one. ‘Don’t mess with The Mouse,’ they say in Hollywood. Disney is better than the zookeepers of Windsor Great Park when it comes to handling and retaining assets. With The Mouse behind Elephant, we haven’t herd the last of Meghan.
‘Man is born free but he is everywhere in chains,’ Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract. Royals and stars are everywhere in chains of obligation or contract, but they dream, like Elsa in Disney’s Born Free, of fending for themselves and securing a richer diet. Meghan and Harry were both raised in captivity: each is a child of the national dream factory, of Hollywood and Buckingham Palace. Like Elsa, they have volunteered for re-wilding. The script demands that we celebrate and suffer with them as they recover their rightful species inheritance: renting a house, landing a job, raising a child, visiting a women’s center, taking a helicopter to a ski resort, hanging out with the Obamas. This is the social contract of celebrity culture, but it and the elephants are being used as bait.
Sermonizing about our collective guilt but harmonizing plutocratic habits with the ethics of Greta Thunberg, Meghan and Harry place us on the ivory horns of a dilemma. Elephant demands that we pity the weakness of the most powerful: the regal elephant is as helpless before the onslaught of Homo sapiens as Prince Andrew was before Jeffrey Epstein, and we forfeit our humanity if we ignore its plight. This compliments Meghan and Harry’s media strategy.
The Markles claim victimhood while cultivating the most powerful of friends. They demand both absolute privacy and constant attention. When we turn away, they accuse us of lacking compassion. When we turn towards them, they accuse us of ransacking their habitat and forcing baby Archie into the circus like doe-eyed Diana and big-eared Dumbo before him. Whatever we do, they damn us for wrecking the environment and stealing Archie’s lucrative future. Our family holiday is killing the elephants, but their elephantine carbon footprint is saving the planet.
This is diabolical wokery. It is the whitest of privileges to care more about African animals than about African people, and to use Africa as a tableau for the moral instruction of the distant rich. And it as cold and cunning as a hunter aiming for the elephant’s tiny brain. Our Disneyfied culture of infantilized entertainment demands that everyone identifies with elephants. The royals do their best to persuade us that they are the elephants of our species. As the elephants were collateral victims of imperialism and capitalism, so monarchy, the collateral victim of democracy, is endangered in the 21st century, like poor Meghan and Harry, the very models of 21st-century media-monarchical privilege.
The royal family are infantilized by position but entertainers by profession, powerful yet hunted with the long lens and the long shot, and instinctually fearful of the elephant’s graveyard. It is in their interest to lead our sentiments by example. Prince Philip, the tusker of the Windsor herd, has been prominent in the World Wildlife Fund since its founding in 1961. Charles and Camilla are patrons of the Elephant Fund, established by Camilla’s late brother Mark Shand in 2002 to protect Asian elephants. And as we all seem to have no choice but know, the Meghan ’n’ Harry show was conceived in a tent in elephant heaven, Botswana, which is where Elephant was filmed. More white mischief: the plea for the pachyderms is a reflexive monument to the couple’s mammoth self-regard.
Meghan says that her royalties from Elephant are going to the Botswana charity Elephants Without Borders. This NGO has picked the African elephant as ‘an ambassador for conservation’ and ‘generating opportunities for reconsidering the boundaries between conservation and rural development’. That is a PR euphemism for putting some of the world’s poorest people onto reservations to benefit the tourist industry.
Botswana has more elephants than any other country. In the last three decades, conservation and anti-poaching programs have tripled its pachyderm population to an estimated 160,000. Forty-five percent of Botswana’s land is reserved for the elephants. There are now so many of them that Botswana’s government profits by licensing elephant-hunting. Most of the victims are mature males who, like Harry in his new home in Los Angeles, live separately from their herd. The reality is that the predator most likely to do in young Jomo isn’t a lion, but a human with a shotgun. Given the inspired cynicism of Elephants, the reality also appears to be that we will not be shot of Meghan Markle for a long time.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA.