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Elephant protector and fossil hunter Richard Leakey leaves outsized legacy in Kenya

  • Famed paleontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey died on January 2nd, 2022 at the age of 77.
  • Leakey made his mark on the field of wildlife conservation after he assumed the helm of Kenya’s Wildlife Service in 1989.
  • Leakey cracked down aggressively on poachers and fortified the country’s national parks, arresting the ongoing decline in wildlife populations in the country and revitalizing the tourism sector.
  • But his approach proved controversial, leading him to step down from the head of the agency in 1994. Leakey continued to be active in conservation and paleontology through the last years of his life.

On July 19th, 1989, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi lit the match on twelve tons of elephant tusks soaked in gasoline. The elephants had been the victims of a relentless poaching spree in Kenya, and the ensuing blaze was meant to send a message: Kenya was putting new muscle behind the fight to save its elephants—and it wanted the world to do the same by banning the ivory trade.

The brains behind the burning—which made press around the world—was Richard Leakey, the new head of Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD), soon to be resurrected by Leakey as Kenya’s Wildlife Service (KWS).

Leakey was, arguably, an odd choice. The Kenyan was world famous, but not for preserving species or places. Instead, it was for digging up new fossils that helped prove that humans evolved in Africa, a continuation of his parents’ groundbreaking work.

But in 1989 Leakey gave up digging in the dirt and was now burning tusks in an escalating battle to save Africa’s megafauna from obliteration.

Leakey—who leaves behind a massive and, at times, controversial legacy—died on January 2nd, 2022.

Richard Leakey. Photo credit: Stony Brook University

Origin in Africa

As the son of famed archeologists, Louis and Mary Leakey, Richard was practically born and raised in Kenyan archeology and paleoanthropology. Louis and Mary had become renowned after finding numerous fossils of early hominins, helping to prove that the human species started in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, Mary found the first australopithecine in East Africa, classified today as Paranthropus boisei.

The elder Leakeys were also instrumental in jumpstarting great ape research, including supporting three young women doing groundbreaking studies in the field: Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Dian Fossey (gorillas) and Birute Gladikas (orangutans).

Despite initial misgivings, Richard eventually got caught up in the family business. In the late 1960s Leakey, along with his wife zoologist Maeve Epps and operations manager Kamoya Kimuea—who would become a great paleontologist in his own right—turned their attention to fossils near Lake Turkana in Kenya.

It was here that Richard Leakey would uncover the fossils of early hominid species that would make him as famous as his parents. In 1984, Leakey excavated the nearly complete skeleton of a young male Homo ergaster discovered by Kimuea. Turkana boy, as the discovery was later dubbed, remains the most complete skeleton ever found of an early hominin.

Leakey’s work helped cement the story his parents started. It was arguably the most important discovery in archeology: that humans evolved in Africa from a motley crew of bipedal great apes.

Elephants in Kenya. Photo credit: Nancy Butler

Elephants and rhinos

In 1989, despite his renowned success as a paleontologist, Leaked accepted the invitation to become the head of Kenya’s Wildlife Service extended by President Moi. He took on an immediate crisis.

“They say that desperate times call for desperate measures,” Niall McCann, the Conservation Director at National Park Rescue which focuses on protected areas in Africa, said of Leakey’s conservation career.  “When Leakey took over… the organization was riddled with corruption and wildlife numbers were dropping off a cliff. Well-armed and well-funded poachers had decimated Kenya’s elephant population.”

“Leakey chose to fight fire with fire,” he added.

On taking command, Leakey ordered rangers to shoot poachers on sight, a hugely controversial decision.

But Leakey’s decision wasn’t just about the safety of rhinos and elephants. In the summer of 1989, poachers gunned down three tourists in Kenya’s wildlife parks. Armed bandits also murdered renowned lion conservationist George Adamson in August 1989. The government feared that such incidents would lead to the collapse of its tourism industry, one of its most important sources of revenue.

“Leakey was at the forefront of the professionalization—sometimes pejoratively termed the militarization—of conservation…His tactics were successful at reducing poaching in the short-term, and many other conservation departments and NGOs followed in his footsteps, said McCann. “But they were also highly controversial, with little consideration for the human rights of poachers.”

Before he could save Kenya’s tourism industry, Leakey had to get his rangers back on their feet. His notoriety and charismatic approach helped Leakey raise desperately needed funds. Donors and the World Bank invested around $150 million during Leakey’s tenure, according to The New York Times.

”The rangers were totally demoralized,” Leakey told The New York Times in 1990. ”They had very old equipment, little ammunition, ragged clothes and gym shoes…We raised some funds, re-equipped them with automatic rifles, ammunition, boots, uniforms and daily allowances.”

At the same time, Leakey convinced the government to burn its stockpile of elephant tusks, sending a message to the world. Leakey hoped the gesture would help build pressure for banning the ivory trade. It did. CITES banned the ivory trade in 1990 for the first time and the ban resulted in—at least for a while—a decline in elephant poaching.

The armed defense of nature is still often necessary, just as the armed defense of banks is still often necessary,” notes McCann, “but force must be used proportionately, and local communities must be involved in the management and protection of threatened protected areas.”

In October 1989, KWS killed poaching kingpin Mohamed Hussein Omar, a man believed to be responsible for the deaths of two of the tourists that summer.

“If Richard Leakey hadn’t been around then, we’d have probably lost our wildlife by now,” an unnamed conservationist told Newsweek in 2014.

105 tons of ivory and 1 ton of rhino horn burn in Nairobi National Park on 30th April 2016. Photo credit: Mwangi Kirubi

Brush with Death and New Careers

In 1993, Leakey’s plane crashed. He survived, but lost both of his lower legs. Leakey believed that the crash was deliberate sabotage and an attempt to kill him, though this was never proven. But with his anti-corruption and muscular approach, Leakey had certainly made enemies.

In 1994, a number of government officials accused Leakey himself of corruption, racism and mismanagement. He responded that he was being “vilified” by politicians, but resigned his position nonetheless.

“Leakey’s idea of ‘fortress conservation’, of excluding people from protected areas, is now largely considered both unwise and unjust,” McCann says. “Conservation must be inclusive, and it is generally agreed that local people must be involved in the conservation of their natural heritage for conservation to be sustainable in the long-term.”

Leakey’s focus on both militarization and fortress conservation—he initially wanted to fence off a number of Kenya’s largest and most famous parks—was, at least in part, a product of the time. The idea of sharing resources and revenue with locals—today commonly referred to as “community-based conservation”—was very much in its infancy thirty years ago. Still, it was often reported that Leakey had good rapport with many local groups, including the Maasai.

A year after leaving KWS, Leakey joined others in forming the Safina Party in an attempt to win at the ballot box. The effort struggled to take off, and Leakey was brought back into government in 1999 to deal with corruption as the head of the civil service.

Richard Leakey speaking at the Progressive Forum in 2010. Photo credit: Ed Schipul

Last Decades

Despite a number of deviations, Kenya’s wildlife continued to be a draw for Leakey.

In 2004, Leakey founded WildlifeDirect, a Kenya-based wildlife NGO, focused on raising funds via blogs by local conservationists and rangers. Its CEO, Paula Kahuumbu has become one of the best-known conservationists in Kenya by building a community of concerned citizens advocating for wildlife and the protection of natural resources.

In 2015, Leakey was appointed chairman of KWS, again taking on a direct role to protect the nation’s wildlife. During his time as chairman, he helped push through the idea of a raised railway over Nairobi National Park.

The railway will connect Nairobi with Mombasa, but many conservationists fear it will also decimate Nairobi National Park. Sitting just south of Kenya’s capital, the park is famous for still housing lions, giraffes, rhino and many other megafauna despite being on the doorstep of one of Africa’s biggest cities.

“In my many conversations with [Leakey], it is clear that he is convinced that, like it or not, Kenya will continue to develop and therefore change is inevitable, especially in one of Africa’s fastest growing cities,” Kahumbu wrote in 2016.

The government eventually accepted Leakey’s compromise: An elevated rail allowing animals to pass underneath, rather than ground-level infrastructure.

“Leakey’s support for a raised train line in Nairobi National Park surprised and angered many conservationists in Kenya, who considered the proposal as entirely at odds with conservation,” says McCann, who noted that it was “perhaps a sign that he had come to realize that the African landscape belongs to both people and wildlife, and that we must find ways of accommodating both.”

Even at the end of his life, Leakey was still undertaking new projects. At one time the director of the National Museums of Kenya, Leakey planned a new museum, called Ngaren, that would not only look back on Africa as the crucible of our evolution, but also explore our current problems of “overpopulation…war, disease and climate change,” according to the website.

“Ngaren is not just another museum, but a call to action,” Leakey said of the project. “As we peer back through the fossil record, through layer upon layer of long extinct species, many of which thrived far longer than the human species is ever likely to do, we are reminded of our mortality as a species.”

Architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in New York, is the museum’s designer. It is scheduled to open in 2024.

“Like most leaders, [Leakey’s] legacy is complex, and we should not shy away from engaging with the complexity of his actions,” McCann said.

“He stood for integrity, hard work and excellence in all areas,” Kahumbu, who knew Leakey since she was a child, wrote for WildlifeDirect. “When [he] started the Kenya Wildlife Service he ignited a new approach to conservation in Kenya. He created a proud visionary organization led by Africans that sought to provide excellence in conservation that had never been seen before.”

However one feels about his approach, there is little doubt that many of Kenya’s elephants, rhinos and other wildlife—and their progeny—owe their lives today to Leakey. We, in turn, know more about the world—and ourselves—due to Leakey’s digging in the dirt.

Leakey was buried on a hill overlooking the Great River Valley in Kenya.


Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast:
Leakey’s colleague Jane Goodall on being proven right about animals having personalities, listen here: