Richard Leakey had dreams and worries about the future of mankind

Richard Leakey in 1977 with two crucial skull discoveries — Australopithecus, left, and “1470,” Homo habilis. Credit…Marion Kaplan/Alamy

Last week, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announced the death of Richard Leakey, age 77. As obituaries proliferated globally, touting Leakey’s roles as renowned conservationist and paleoanthropologist, his commitment to serving his country with distinction took precedence locally. Kenyatta commended him for his work as head of the Civil Service, considered the most powerful position in the country, effectively running the government on behalf of the president.

He also held the position of Director of the National Museums of Kenya. The wildlife is there,” he told me one day over lunch in Karen, a leafy suburb in Nairobi. “But it’s fossils and politics that play the bigger part of my life.”

He died in Nairobi having just returned there after spending Christmas at his family compound in Lamu, on Kenya’s coast. He is said to have died of complications from COVID, which he’d told friends he contracted at a meeting with Chinese engineers.

I met Leakey during my first trip to Kenya, in 1993, at his house on Champagne Ridge in the Rift Valley. He was recovering from a plane crash that resulted in the loss of both legs. He told me he was sure that henchmen of then President Moi had sabotaged the plane he was piloting. At the time, as chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, he was on a campaign to eradicate corruption in order to keep Moi’s “sticky fingers” from grabbing money he’d raised for conservation. Leakey publicly resigned as head of Kenya Wildlife Service after the Moi government accused him of corruption and mismanagement.

I last saw him a year ago, when we lunched in Karen. His already fragile health was even more tenuous, due to the covid pandemic He struggled with his cane to navigate the tables at Hemingway’s restaurant. He said he felt better than he had in 2016, promoting the biopic (never made) that would star Brad Pitt and be directed by Angelina Jolie.

What, I asked, was his big message of the day? “Racism is rotten. The world is a mess as far as nature preservation. It worked before there were humans. We are headed toward species extinction.”

Given all that he’d achieved I wondered how he’d been overlooked for a knighthood. “The Brits don’t like me,” he said. “My father was pro Mau-Mau,” referring to the violent uprising that led to Kenya’s independence in 1963.

Leakey’s grandparents were missionaries from the Church of England in what was then British East Africa. His parents, the legendary paleo-anthropoligists Louis B. Leakey and Mary Leakey (of Olduvai Gorge fame). But it was Richard Leakey whose fossil discoveries further proved that the evolutionary origins of humankind are to be found in Africa.

His roles extended beyond science to the most important aspects of Kenya’s national treasures and heritage. In response to the international outcry over poaching of elephants, KWS, under his direction, became one of the best-funded and best-armed paramilitaries fighting poaching in Africa. Leakey initiated and enforced a shoot-to-kill anti-poacher policy that is still active today.

Richard Leakey in front of a pyre of burning ivory, Nairobi National Park, 1988.

In 1988 he led the famous and internationally televised ivory burn in Nairobi National park. He burned 12 tons of confiscated ivory. Called a stunt by some, his coup borrowed a tactic from Brigitte Bardot’s campaign against animal cruelty. Bardot had burned piles of synthetic fur in a bid to reduce market value of fur in the fashion industry.Leakey’s idea was to shame people into not wearing or displaying ivory, and drive down its value. It worked. The price of ivory plummeted. Leakey made enemies along the way, especially among former hunters who saw the ivory burn as incinerating serious money that could have been used to fund anti-poaching. Some felt he was turning ecosystems into parks which were little more than glorified zoos.

Most recently, Leakey founded the conservation organization Wildlife Direct. 

Leakey’s vocal critics included artist Peter Beard, who was a rival to Leakey on a number of fronts–not least of them fame. They had competing conservation narratives aimed at raising the most money. 

Soon after moving to East Africa, I set about investigating a collection of “rare’ and “ancient” Maasai artifacts that Beard and his ranch manager, British national Gillies Turle, had been collecting for years. 

Both Leakey and Beard admitted a mutual loathing that dated back to 1969. 

Leakey was notoriously territorial about his archaeological sites around Lake Turkana. Beard, the artist, liked to collect natural materials for his collages. Leakey, the scientist, had Beard in his sights when the artist began collecting Nile perch fossils, ostrich feathers, and crocodile skins around the lake. Leakey sent a camel posse of Etonian KWS rangers into the area to arrest him. “I did not trust Peter Beard,” said the scientist.” He’s an artist after all.”

Where Leakey worked at driving down the value of poached ivory, , Beard gave ivory, rhino horn and giraffe bone added value by promoting them in the form of artifacts. . 

In 1990 Leakey raided Beard’s Hog Ranch in Nairobi. As soon as he became chair of KWS he sent rangers to the ranch to confiscate Beard’s burgeoning collection. (The artifacts, alleged to be Maasai, were deemed fraudulent by American anthropologist Dr. Donna Pido. In a 1990 review in African Arts, Pido dismissed the coffee table book Art of the Maasai, authored by Turle and illustrated with Beard’s luscious photos. 

In a joint op with US with Fish & Wildlife officers KWS descended on Hog Ranch for a second time in 1999, this time arresting Turle. In a warehouse at Jomo Kenyatta International airport authorities seized and confiscated several footlockers of the artifacts and a street value of $3m worth of ivory. 

Leakey told me that what bothered him about the hoax as much as the poaching was the fraudulent aspect. Leakey had told me Beard was selling “the Bones” for upward of $20,000 apiece. And he had hundreds more than were revealed in the book. 

“If the market for these doesn’t stop the rhino could be in a lot of trouble,” he told me,. At the time only 400 black rhino remained in Kenya. 

Before leaving our last lunch, Leakey said he was very excited about his latest project,  the Museum of Humankind, to be located in the Rift Valley, not far from his house on Champagne Ridge. The museum is to house a planetarium, feature interactive exhibits, virtual reality, and display life-size dinosaurs;visitors will learn about climate change. Leakey had initially partnered with architect Daniel Libeskind, the master-plan architect of the new World Trade Center. But the two fell out. More recently Leakey had been working with Weta Digital, a New Zealand company that created the special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film he’d consulted on. 

“Turkana Boy will stand up like a hologram. The bones come to life,” Leakey  said. “He talks to the audience, making tools, and smashing bones. Think of the power of that.” 

I gave that a moment’s thought. “Until there’s a power outage.” 

After a few glasses of wine Leakey leaned in to relate an anecdote, and asked me to include in the memoir he’d invited me to consider writing with him. Shortly after he had taken over as head of the Civil Service he attended a meeting with Moi. When he arrived the president told him he wasn’t invited. “But I am your right-hand man.” Moi turned to his aides and said, “Leakey thinks I am a black monkey.” Leakey replied to Moi saying, “I have been trying to tell you for years about evolution, but I am here to tell you you are a black ape.” And Moi stormed out.

At first I didn’t get it either. But of course. For an anthropologist we humans are, in fact, a species of ape.

President Daniel Arap Moi ignites ivory in Nairobi National Park, 1988.
Lunch at Hemingway’s, Karen, January 11, 2021. Credit Margot Kiser