Richard Leakey both extended human history backward & helped Kenyan wildlife survive into the future
NAIROBI, Kenya––Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, 77, known to the world as simply Richard Leakey, died on January 2, 2022, in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital city and his home for most of his life.
Born in Nairobi on December 19, 1944, Richard Leakey was a third-generation Kenyan, the grandson of missionary immigrants and the second son of paleontologist Mary Leakey and anthropologist Louis Leakey.
Louis Leakey also had two children from a fractious previous marriage.
Mary and Louis Leakey, during their 27 years together, are best remembered for their fossil discoveries at Olduvai, Kenya, which significantly pushed back the evolutionary age of humanity.
Skull fracture kept Louis & Mary together
Louis Leakey is also recalled for having dispatched graduate student researchers Diann Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas to live among and study mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, respectively.
Louis Leakey also held strong proto-animal rights beliefs and was an early outspoken opponent of female genital-cutting. Louis and Mary Leakey together founded the Dalmatian Club of East Africa. The family were also mainstays of the Langata Pony Club.
But the Leakey household, given the contentious nature of both Louis and Mary Leakey, appears to have been anything but harmonious.
Louis Leakey was reportedly close to leaving Mary in 1956, in favor of his secretary, Rosalie Osborn, when Richard Leakey, 11, fell off his horse and suffered a near-fatal skull fracture.
“As the battle with Mary raged,” according to Wikipedia, Richard Leakey “begged his father from his sickbed not to leave. That was the deciding factor. Louis broke up with Rosalie,” and remained married to Mary until 1963.
High school dropout made good
Richard Leakey, meanwhile, dropped out of school and at age 16, in 1960, began a wildlife trapping and fossil-selling business which within a year morphed into guiding photo safaris.
Flying his clients to Olduvai, Richard Leakey at age 17 saw from the air the paleontological potential of nearby Lake Natron. His discoveries there later led him, in 1967, to investigate Lake Turkana, where he eventually discovered the skulls of Homo hablis (1.9 million years old) and Homo erectus (1.6 million years old.)
Finding these “missing links” put Richard Leakey on the cover of Time magazine in 1973. His most famous discovery however, the 1.5-million-year-old Turkana Boy, came in 1984, and remains the most complete fossil skeleton of a distant human ancestor ever found.
A year later the Richard Leakey-led team discovered Australopithecus aethiopicus, also known as Paranthropus aethiopicus, about 2.5 million years old. This fossil is the subject of enduring debate as to whether it represents is an authentically distinct species, or is another example of species whose partial skeletons were found by others in 1968 and 1976.
Worked––& remarried––under diagnosis of terminal illness
Richard Leakey meanwhile met British archaeologist Margaret Cropper in 1964, followed her back to England, married her 1965, and returned with her to Kenya. They had two daughters together, but were divorced in 1969, the same year in which Richard Leakey was diagnosed with terminal kidney disease.
Most of Richard Leakey’s significant paleontological work was done under that shadow, despite which he married fellow paleo-archaeologist Meave Epps, now his widow, in 1970.
Meave Epps is noted for the 1999 discovery of a 3.5-million-year-old skull and partial jaw believed to represented a previously unknown proto-human she named Kenyanthropus platyops.
Louise Leakey, Meave Epps’ daughter with Richard Leakey, found her first protohuman fossil at age five, in 1977, and has gone on to a noteworthy paleontological career herself.
A 1979 kidney transplant from younger brother Philip both saved and markedly extended Richard Leakey’s life.
Turned Game Department into Kenya Wildlife Service
By then among the most internationally recognized and respected Kenyans, known for coordinating disciplined field work, Richard Leakey was in 1989 appointed by Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi to head what was then called the Game Department.
Richard Leakey, in particular, was assigned to stop elephant poaching.
The most aggressively poached Kenyan species too big to be sold and consumed as “bushmeat,” elephants peaked in number in the Tsavo eco-system of southeastern Kenya at about 25,000 circa 1972.
This was midway through a catastrophic four-year drought. The drought brought a massive elephant die-off, compounded by an explosion of ivory poaching that cut the number of elephants in the Tsavo region to barely 5,000.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] in 1989 imposed the global ban on ivory trafficking that remains in effect today.
Shoot-to-kill vs. poachers
But the Tsavo elephant population had already begun a recovery when the CITES ban took effect. Many observers credited a “shoot-to-kill” anti-poaching policy proclaimed by Moi in 1984, but not actually implemented until Richard Leakey in 1989 reconstituted the Game Department as the Kenya Wildlife Service.
130 suspected poachers were shot within the next few years, but some of them turned out to have been unarmed herdsmen carrying nothing more menacing than a stick for driving cattle, goats, or sheep. Others were truck drivers trying to fix their vehicles after breakdowns in Tsavo, whose tools were mistaken for weapons.
The “shoot-to-kill” policy meanwhile encouraged serious poachers to improve their armament and shoot at wildlife rangers before they were fired upon.
“Killing poachers has not worked very well,” Kenyan investigative journalist Gitau Mbaria told ANIMALS 24-7 in May 2014. “Animals continue to be poached with or without shoot-to-kill orders,” while human rights abuses alienate the public.
Despite having enforced the shoot-to-kill policy as Kenya Wildlife Service director, Richard Leakey by August 2014 had second thoughts about it, he told Tom Odula and Jason Straziuso of Associated Press, after Muslims for Human Rights documented 18 killings of alleged poachers since 2011 in and around Tsavo National Park.
Muslims for Human Rights alleged that, “Corrupt Kenyan wildlife rangers are killing
poachers to cover up the officers’ collusion with criminals slaughtering elephants,” Odula and Straziuso reported.
“Sadly, extrajudicial killing is all too common in Kenya in the uniformed services,” Richard Leakey emailed to Odula and Straziuso.
Richard Leakey noted, Odula and Straziuso wrote, “that most poachers around Tsavo
are Muslim, often of Somali origin, and that some in the Kenya Wildlife Service could be
anti-Somali because of attacks in Kenya by Somali militants from al-Shabab,” an Islamist militia.
The shoot-to-kill policy was not Richard Leakey’s only wildlife management fiasco.
Recounted Ramadhan Rajab of the Nairobi Star, “Sport hunting was introduced to Kenya in 1910, but following drastic losses of some hunted species, [first Kenyan president] Jomo Kenyatta in 1977 put a total ban on the practice. Richard Leakey, during his tenure as Kenya Wildlife Service director, reintroduced an experimental cropping program,” meaning allowing private landowners to raise wildlife to be hunted.
“It was supposed to run for five years, but it went on for 13 years,” Rajab remembered. “In 2001, a cropping evaluation report was done that established that poaching for bushmeat increased around areas in which cropping was allowed. This led to a total ban of consumptive utilization of wildlife by the then [wildlife and tourism] minister, the late Newton Kulundu, in 2004.”
Richard Leakey in 1993 crashed his single-engine Cessna airplane in the Rift Valley. He survived but lost both legs.
Richard Leakey believed to the end of his life that the airplane had been sabotaged by someone in an attempt to kill him.
Amid rumors fed by the Moi government of corruption within the Kenya Wildlife Service, Richard Leakey resigned in January 1994.
Richard Leakey detailed this part of his life in a book, Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s Natural Treasures (2001), ghost-written by Virginia Morell.
Campaigned against corruption
Richard Leakey then organized an anti-corruption opposition political party, called Safina, or Noah’s Ark.
In 1997, meanwhile, “international donor institutions froze their aid to Kenya because of widespread corruption,” summarizes Wikipedia. “To placate the donors, Moi appointed Richard Leakey as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service in 1999.”
Richard Leakey “sacked 25,000 civil servants and obtained £250 million of funds from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank,” Wikipedia continues. “However, Leakey found himself sidelined after the money arrived, and his reforms were blocked in the courts. He was sacked from his cabinet post in 2001.”
Richard Leakey’s next major endeavor was forming the conservation organization WildlifeDirect in 2004, with Harold Wackman, the former World Bank Representative to Kenya.
WildlifeDirect was briefly headed by Emmanuel de Merode, husband of Richard Leakey’s daughter Louise. De Merode, a biological anthropologist, had begun working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1993, chiefly in Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa, founded in 1925.
Offered the opportunity to head the Virunga National Park ranger corps in 2007, de Merode quickly accepted.
“Virunga contains the largest number of mammals, birds, and reptiles and has more endemic species than any other park on the African continent,” de Merode explained.
Virunga is best known as the home of mountain gorillas. Said Richard Leakey, supporting de Merode’s decision, “The survival of these last remaining mountain gorillas should be one of humanity’s greatest priorities. Their future lies with a small number of very brave rangers risking their lives with very little support from the outside world.”
Got pesticide banned
WildlifeDirect since 2007 has been headed by Richard Leakey protegé Paula Kahumbu, the then almost unknown architect of the Earth Day 1989 bonfire of confiscated elephant ivory in Nairobi National Park that dramatized to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species the need for the global embargo on elephant ivory trade that was adopted later that year.
“In the early years,” recalls the WildlifeDirect web site, the organization “highlighted the plight of gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, successfully campaigned to ban the pesticide Furudan that was being used to poison lions in Kenya, and supported the Mara Conservancy following the collapse in tourism revenues as a result of the post-election violence in 2007.
Widespread misuse of Furadan also threatened hyenas, jackals, leopards and many bird and fish species.
Defended South African elephant cull
Perhaps fortunately for WildlifeDirect, Richard Leakey stepped out of an active leadership role just before defending South African elephant culls in an article for the BBC Green Room series.
“While I will never ‘like’ the idea of elephant culling,” Richard Leakey wrote, “I do accept that given the impacts of human-induced climate change and habitat destruction, elephants inside and outside of protected areas will become an increasingly serious problem unless key populations are reduced and maintained at appropriate levels. Though I find elephant culling repugnant, I can see the sense in it [in some scenarios].”
Welcomed Chinese involvement
Unlike many African conservationists, especially in Kenya, who view the increasing Chinese presence on the continent with alarm, Richard Leakey simultaneously acknowledged the Chinese role in poaching and wildlife trafficking, and viewed Chinese influence with optimism.
Explained Richard Leakey, in a 2002 interview with BBC News Online in Nairobi, “In 1989, China was a poor county, but it has grown phenomenally. Since the earliest emperors, ivory has been a mark of value in China. Now, in effect, you have a hundred million emperors, with traditional ivory carvers on their doorstep in places like Hong Kong, creating a demand fed by illegal supply. Whether or not there is a trade ban,” Leakey continued, “is irrelevant. There is a huge new market. That means Africa is going to have to protect elephants effectively: more money, more people, more guns.”
However, Richard Leakey added, “I don’t think the government in Beijing wants to be responsible for the extinction of elephants. The Chinese have a credible environmental record. Tell them the facts. Get Chinese non-governmental organizations, which are good, to create the public attitudes that made such a difference in the west. A large part of the success of the ban on the international ivory trade introduced in 1989 was not just on paper,” Leakey reminded. “It was a change in public attitudes. That was why the bottom fell out of the trade.”
Driving that train, high over the animals
Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, son of first Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta and his fourth wife Mama Ngina Kenyatta, in 2015 appointed Richard Leakey chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service board.
“He brokered a deal on the extension of the [Chinese-financed] Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, allowing the railway to pass over Nairobi National Park” on a 60-foot concrete trestle,” Wikipedia summarizes. “Leakey felt that the viaduct would set an example for the rest of Africa in balancing economic development with environmental protection.”
Clashed with African Network for Animal Welfare
In January 2017, however, Africa Network for Animal Welfare public affairs director Kahindi Lekalehaile and Kenya Coalition for Wildlife Conservation & Management founder Sidney Quntai demanded Richard Leakey’s resignation because he had not tried to block the construction of the railway extension.
Richard Leakey may have somewhat mollified his critics in September 2017 by appointing Africa Network for Animal Welfare board chair Nehemiah Rotich to serve as chief operating officer of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Rotich, who headed the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1999-2001, repairing much of the damage done by Richard Leakey’s successors, held the chief operating officer position until 2018.
“Problems we all face now are beyond individual conservationists”
“A tall man with the burned and scarred skin that results from a life lived outdoors,” Jon Lee Anderson wrote for the New Yorker on February 20, 2020, Richard Leakey “has survived two kidney transplants, one liver transplant, and a devastating airplane crash. For the past quarter century, he has moved around on prosthetic limbs concealed beneath his trousers.
“In his home town of Nairobi, Leakey keeps an office in an unlikely sort of place—the annex building of a suburban shopping mall. His desk and chair fill most of his cubicle, which has a window that looks onto a parking lot.”
Concerning the future of Kenyan wildlife, Richard Leakey told Anderson, “The problems we all face now are far beyond the power of individual conservationists to cope with. They can help stem the disappearance of certain species, and to hold what’s there, but it’s tough when you’ve got national parks,” such as Meru, “where there used to be [fourteen] rivers running through, draining off Mount Kenya, but now [almost] all the ice is gone from Mount Kenya, and the springs are drying up, and there are now [four] rivers running through, and in a couple of years there won’t be any. What will the animals drink?
Optimistic in the long term
“It is possible to cut carbon dioxide,” Leakey continued. “It may not be possible to recover the environment sufficiently for wildlife in the next thirty or forty years, but the planet has been here for three and a half, four billion years; life has been on the planet for six hundred million years, humans have been living on the planet—bipedal creatures—for six million years, and we’ve been a technological species for four million years.
“So, in the longer term, say in a timescale of several hundred years, I can be very optimistic.”
“Adventure, discovery, & passion”
Recalled Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, working in Kenya since 1967, “The world has lost one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever known. His life was full of adventure, discovery, and passion for both the past and the present. He was very opinionated and impatient with those he thought were a waste of his time. I felt very fortunate, indeed, that he made time for me and agreed to be on the board of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants,” which Moss founded in 2000.
Remembered Joyce Poole, 66, who headed the Kenya Wildlife Service elephant program under Richard Leakey from 1990 to 1994, “Through his leadership we were able to turn the tide for Kenya’s elephants and build a generation of Kenyan conservationists whose strong voices can be heard loud and clear. Richard could be brusque, impatient and even rude, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. But he would move heaven and earth for those he admired and liked.”
Testified against meat-eating
Among a wealth of other testimonials from conservation luminaries came a surprising tribute from Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, best known for vegan advocacy and opposition to laboratory use of animals.
“Although his discoveries on human evolution made him famous,” posted Barnard to Facebook, “we remember him as a friend to the Physicians Committee’s work and to the protection of animals.
“In an interview for my first book, The Power of Your Plate (1995),” Barnard said, “Richard Leakey commented in detail on the human diet, pointing out that the natural diet of humans was based on plant-based foods, like those of other great apes. Humans ‘are not carnivores and never have been carnivores,’ he said.
“So how did meat-eating begin? Presumably as scavenging, his research suggested.
“During times of shortage, humans might have eaten meat left over from a carnivore’s kill, but even that was unlikely prior to the Stone Age, when humans developed stone tools that allowed them to cut meat from a carcass. Meat-eating on the scale we know today has nothing to do with human nature, he felt,” Barnard paraphrased in conclusion.