A few days ago I was writing about the lives of four icons – Desmond Tutu, Tom Lovejoy, E.O Wilson, and Betty white who all died within the last week of 2021 And now, at the very start of 2022, on 2nd January, they are joined by Richard Leakey. That he lived to be 77 is a tribute to his indomitable will to beat the odds, for Richard was plagued by health problems from the age of 11 when he fractured his skull, falling from a horse, and nearly died. He had two kidney transplants, the first in 1979 was donated by his younger brother Philip. (A digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive stated that ‘the digitization process may introduce transcription errors.’ Which explains the following: On Oct. 4 Richard Leakey’s family announced that he was “ill in London and will receive a kidney transplant from a brothel”!!) Richard also had to endure a liver transplant and had a battle with skin cancer. And then, in 1993, he had to have both legs amputated below the knee as a result of a mechanical failure in his single engine Cessna aircraft. That he survived all these set backs is a tribute to his indomitable will to live and to carry on in the face of adversity. This same indomitable will enabled him to stand up against the many other challenges he faced – death threats caused by his uncompromising determination to stamp out corruption in the Kenyan government and his determination to defeat the criminal groups that were slaughtering elephants and other Kenyan wildlife and which has given him the status of hero among conservationists. He also achieved fame for his spectacular contributions to paleoanthropology. Richard always considered himself, above all else, an African – a loyal Kenyan citizen.
I first met Richard when he was 13 years old. I had been invited to join Richard’s parents, Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey and his wife Mary, both paleoanthropologists, on their annual 3 month expedition to the now famous Olduvai Gorge to search for the fossilized remains of early hominids. Richard joined this expedition, along with his older brother Jonny, at the start of the school holidays. Richard was energetic and clearly passionate about wildlife and the outdoors. He told me I was just the person he had been looking for to help him with a typically audacious plan – he and I would ride into a herd of zebra, come up one on each side of a yearling, and each grab one of the animals’s ears. This, he assured me, would at once subdue the unfortunate animal after which we could train it to be ridden. A more unlikely undertaking is hard to imagine and needless to say we never attempted any such thing!
Richard left school when he was only 15 and initially determined that he would not follow in his parents’ footsteps – they were famous for the many discoveries of early hominids that contributed to the understanding of human evolution and Richard wanted to carve out his own path to fame.
He started a safari company, got his pilot’s license and took tourists to visit Olduvai and other remote areas. But after taking part in a paleontological expedition to Kenya’s remote north he realized that, after all, he would return to his early passion – fossil hunting. He got a grant from the national Geographic Society to lead his own expedition there, set up a camp, and over the next years he and his team discovered many hominid remains that substantiated his parents’ conviction that modern humans first evolved in East Africa. In 1972 they discovered a 1.9-million-year-old skull of Homo habilis and three years later a 1.6-million-year-old skull of Homo erectus. But the most famous of all finds was the uncovering, in 1984, of a near-complete Homo erectus skeleton. Nicknamed ‘Turkana Boy,’ it dated from approximately 1.5-1.6m years ago and is still the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor ever found.
Even before that last ground breaking discovery, Richard’s good looks, charismatic personality, and spectacular fossil discoveries, made him the ideal person to front a 1981 BBC television series –‘The Making of Man.’ This was a fascinating overview of all the fossils found over the years, in different parts of the world, each of which helped scientists to piece together the story of human evolution.
He first became involved in wildlife conservation when he realized the extent of the horrifying slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Kenya’s national parks. In 1989 the Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi appointed him to lead the national wildlife agency, which became the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
With his leadership skills, and the funds he raised as he cultivated philanthropic Americans, he was able to build up a loyal ranger force that was instructed to follow the order, endorsed by the president: to kill armed poachers on sight. As a result, the poaching was dramatically reduced while tourism to Kenya, which had dropped off during the years of rampant poaching, now increased providing more revenue to the government. The World Bank and IMF stepped in with a multi million dollar loan. There is no doubt that Richard was responsible for paralyzing most of the criminal cartels behind the wholesale slaughter of elephants and rhinos, thus ending what had been catastrophic wholesale slaughtering of wildlife in Kenya. Moreover he became one of the world’s leading voices against the then legal global ivory trade. He masterminded a dramatic publicity stunt whereby President Moi himself set light to the entire stock of Kenya’s illegal ivory – all 12 tons of it. The message was that ivory should have no value unless it was on an elephant. Other countries followed suit, and most endorsed a ban on the sale of ivory.
During this time Richard, typically, refused to turn a blind eye to the corruption that was rife in the government, exposing the fact that certain powerful individuals were blatantly creaming off tourist money for their own use – money that should have gone to operating the national parks. As he result he created powerful enemies. This is when numerous threats were made on his life and for a number of years had 24 hour protection of 4 armed guards. The plane crash that forced him to walk on prosthetics for the rest of his life, he always believed was the result of sabotage, though this was never proved.
Inevitably, as Richard created more and more political enemies he lost the support of the president and eventually he was sacked. For a couple of years he entered the political arena, forming an opposition party to combat Moi’s corrupt regime. He was subsequently asked to head up Kenya’s civil service, specifically to fight corruption – a task which proved impossible. He was no longer able to do field work, but he maintained the research in the Turkana basin in collaboration with the Stony Brook University in NY, creating the ‘Turkana Basin Institute,’ handing over the leadership to his wife, Maeve Leakey – a celebrated paleoanthropologist in her own right.
After Richard was forced out of his position in WCS, poaching once again began to increase, and in 2015 countries in Africa were in the grip of another elephant and rhino poaching crisis. By this time President Kenyatta had been elected as president and he invited Leakey back to KWS, this time as chairman of the board. Once again Richard played a key role in successfully combatting poaching. I wonder how many elephants owe him their lives.
Over the years Richard spent a good deal of time lecturing in America and other parts of the world. He wrote a number of books and he received numerous honorary doctoral degrees, honours, and awards. He had an adoring public – I met one woman who was clinically obese. She was desperate to go with Richard on one of his safaris in Africa but he told her that he simply could not take her in his small plane. When I saw her, a year later, I honestly could not recognize her. She had managed to lose pounds and pounds! She got her reward, she got to go to Africa with Richard!
Over the years I met up with Richard from time to time. He visited Gombe with a group of wealthy American fans, and I sat on various panels with him in the America and the UK. One particular meeting I remember vividly was when I spent an evening with him and his wife Maeve, in their lovely home outside Nairobi, discussing the problems of poaching and corruption in both Kenya and Tanzania – oh and all sorts of other things. Not only Maeve but one of their two daughters, Louisa, is also a famous paleoanthropologist. Louis and Mary Leakey would be so proud of the contributions of their son, daughter in law and granddaughter have made to our understanding of how we became human.
Richard, you fought the good fight, you made major contributions as a scientist, conservationist, and politician. Surely a movie will soon be made of your richly adventurous and influential life. Your legacy will continue for many decades, inspiring others to follow in your giant footsteps.