Richard Leakey’s Life in the Wild
On the night of January 2, I received a text from Paula Kahumbu, the Kenyan environmentalist. “Dear friends, sad news,” she wrote. “Richard Leakey has just passed away at his home in Kona Baridi.” Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and wildlife advocate, had been his mentor – a vocal and controversial advocate of African wildlife, whose tumultuous career has been central to Kenya’s history for the past half century.
Leakey has always been a happy fighter. The last time I saw him, two years ago, in Nairobi, he told me that “the Grim Reaper” “has been prowling here for a long time.” He had survived two kidney transplants, a liver transplant and a plane crash that cost him both legs, but he didn’t complain about his ailments as much as he was adamant in his opinions.
Leakey was working on a museum of humanity, to be built on a hill outside the Kenyan capital. A render of the design, by Daniel Libeskind, showed twin stone spiers towering above the Great Rift Valley. The museum would help establish Kenya’s place as both the ancient cradle of humanity and a leader in current wildlife conservation efforts. Leakey had secured a leading role in both arenas; the museum would also be a monument to his life’s work. He admitted he had yet to secure funding – the building alone would cost a hundred million dollars – but he didn’t seem disheartened. He happily confided that he was having lunch the next day with an American billionaire he was courting.
Leakey was born in Nairobi in 1944 and, in a sense, he inherited the direction of his life’s work. His parents, Anglo-Kenyan paleontologists Mary and Louis Leakey, had pioneered research into the origins of the human species and also cultivated some of Africa’s most notable conservationists. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, who conducted groundbreaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania and mountain gorillas in Rwanda, respectively, were Louis’ charges.
Fiercely competitive with his parents, Leakey dropped out of high school to go it alone and soon began leading paleontological expeditions. He had rapid success, with fossil finds that supported his parents’ findings, and Time put it on his blanket, in 1977. Seven years later, he made a surprising discovery: near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, he and his team unearthed the fossil remains of a 1 hominid, 9 million years old, the most complete skeleton of its kind ever recovered.
A charismatic man with big hands and a handsome sun-scarred face, Leakey has proven adept at publicizing his causes and himself. His biggest publicity stunt came in 1989, when he presided over the cremation of twelve tonnes of poached elephant ivory. It was the world’s first public ivory burning, and Leakey had enlisted the President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, to light the pyre. The coup brought to light a striking fact: Over the past decade, the country’s elephant population had grown from around 250,000 to around 16,000. Leakey’s performance policy inspired global headlines and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on conservation efforts in Kenya.
Like his parents, Leakey was a privileged beneficiary of the National Geographic Society. (I first introduced myself to him at a National Geographic event; I was fourteen and in awe. When I reminded him of the reunion decades later, he said dryly that it didn’t. could not have happened that way, since we were obviously about the same age.) Over the years, he wrote a series of scholarly books, examining the origins of mankind and its place in the world, and became one of the most requested speakers on international conservation. Kahumbu told me, “Everyone wanted to spend time with him, but he was very selective and seemed anti-social to some. In private life, she added, “he spent hours in a chair under a tree in Masai Mara, alone, in communion with nature.” At teatime, he was often found on his veranda, talking with his wife Meave, an accomplished paleoanthropologist who once worked at her primate research camp in Tanzania. “He was a serious man, but he had a surprising social side,” Kahumbu added. “He loved to cook and entertain in his large kitchen. He served wine from his own vineyard and he had an evil sense of humor.
Environmental reporter Delta Willis, a friend of Leakey’s, told me, “The pride he felt in the beauty of his birthplace was contagious. He once announced: “I am from Kenya”, as you or I might say: “I won the first prize. He spoke melodic Kiswahili beautifully, just as his father had spoken Kikuyu. Leakey had come of age among a declining British colonial class; when Kenya gained independence in 1963 he was still a teenager. “Unlike any other white man in Kenya, many of his closest friends were black,” Kahumbu said.
Also unusual for a white Kenyan, Leakey got involved in his country’s politics, with turbulent results. In 1989, he took charge of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Four years later, as his relationship with President Moi deteriorated, Leakey’s plane crashed, in what he always believed to be an assassination attempt. As he adjusted to the loss of his legs, he resigned from KWS and helped found an opposition political party. It was a daring move that got him flogged by Moi’s henchmen, as well as a seat in Parliament. Later, back in favor with Me, he was appointed Director of the Kenya Civil Service. In this post, he ordered the dismissal of tens of thousands of civil servants for corruption. Finally, Moi sent him back.
Leakey’s uncompromising nature and his sense of purpose couldn’t always be reconciled. John Heminway, an American writer and filmmaker who knew him well, told me that Leakey decided early on that “making friends isn’t essential, but making a difference is.” He took every opportunity to leave his mark. In 2015, after years of criticizing the KWS as corrupt, Leakey returned as chairman of its board. Away from government, he co-founded a conservation charity called WildlifeDirect and, together with Stony Brook University on Long Island, established the Turkana Basin Institute, focused on continuing the Leakey family’s fieldwork in Africa. East. On the shores of Lake Turkana, he helped build a forty million dollar research center, where dozens of American and Kenyan students each year conduct field research, following his example.
Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect and one of Africa’s most prominent conservation figures, credits Leakey with the inspiration for her own career, after they met when she was a young girl in Nairobi. One of Leakey’s three daughters, Louise, is also a paleoanthropologist. Countless other scientists, activists and aficionados have been inspired over the decades by his books and speeches. Willis told me that she attended one of Leakey’s last conferences, at the Muthaiga Country Club, in Nairobi, last October. “He apologized for using a wheelchair and explained that he had contracted COVID, which affected her breathing, ”she said. “Then he spoke without notes for forty-five minutes, inspired. One saw a fragile man in a wheelchair but heard a boy with a dream.
In the decades since Leakey torched the mound of tusks, Kenya’s elephant population has rebounded somewhat, to thirty-five thousand. But many other species remain at risk, and in recent years Leakey has at times seemed grim, even resigned. “There is a narrowing of options for humanity,” he told me in Nairobi. “It may not be possible to sufficiently restore the environment for wildlife in the next thirty or forty years,” he continued. “But, you know, the planet has been here for three and a half billion, four billion years. Life has been on the planet for six hundred million years, humans have lived there – bipedal creatures – for six million years, and we have been a technological species for four million years. So, can’t we go through the next hundred years and put our vision to restoring the planet? “