Richard Leakey often said that the things he liked best were the things people said were impossible to do. He also said he had no interest in being popular; he was rather interested in doing what was his passion at the time. As his passion changed throughout his life, Leakey impacted more areas of human endeavor than most people do in a lifetime.
It must also be said that while Leakey’s pragmatic, action-oriented style has earned him the admiration of his friends, it has also earned him more than a few haters. This has had no significant consequences in the field of human origins research, for which he is best known internationally, but rather in the field of Kenyan politics. It is widely suspected, for example, that the 1993 crash of a single-engine plane he was piloting was not an accident.
At the time of the accident, Leakey was making life uncomfortable for people in high places who were interested in the exploitation of wildlife, including elephant ivory. He lost both legs below the knees in the accident. Typical of Leakey’s humor, he often liked to joke, “I’ve got two feet in grace, but I’m still alive”, while giving his characteristic broad smile and choppy, snorting laugh.
I first met Leakey in 1975, in his sparse office at the National Museums of Kenya, of which he had been director since 1968. He was dressed in a blue blazer with brass buttons, a white shirt and a red striped tie and khaki pants. I was not. He later told me that my jeans and denim shirt kinda alarmed him as “a bit of a hippie”, but since I was a writer, he let it go. Leakey’s need to dress “properly” captures a major beast he struggled with in his previous professional life.
By 1975, Leakey had already accomplished two things that “couldn’t be done.” The first was to begin the transformation of the Nairobi Museum from a parochial institution into a world-class center for the study of human prehistory. The second was to discover a rich site of ancient human fossils on the eastern side of Lake Rudolph (later Turkana), an area thought to be barren volcanic rock but turned out to be sandstone sediments . And yet here is a man without a college degree. He left school aged 16, briefly flirted with the idea of going to university in England five years later, but quickly abandoned that idea in favor of action on the pitch. in Kenya.
Leakey had been politically shrewd enough to maneuver himself into being the head of the museum when he was just 24, in 1968. But he felt snubbed because of his lack of scholarship. He undertook to remedy this by writing articles in the journal Nature on the remarkable finds of human fossils at Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. But even here he was plagued by the idea that the “real scientific analysis” should be done by the “experts”. However, Leakey was determined as always and pushed forward, his dress code forming part of his defensive shield.
Michael Day, British anatomist and human fossil expert, said that “nine-tenths of your importance in [human prehistory] comes from your findings”. Here Leakey proved unrivaled (although challenged by friend and sometimes rival Donald Johanson, discoverer of the famous skeleton “Lucy”, in southern Ethiopia). In 1969, Leakey (and his new wife, Meave) launched the first large-scale expedition to the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. Within days, Leakey found a complete specimen of an early member of the human family, Australopithecus. It was the kind of discovery his famous parents, Louis and Mary, had waited almost three decades for. (Louis Leakey used to joke that the secret to his talent for finding fossils was “Leakey’s luck.” Obviously, Richard had inherited it in spades.)
The skull, commonly known as 1470, that Leakey’s team discovered had an unusually large brain, leading many to suspect it was a species of Homo, the lineage who led us. It was thought at the time (wrongly, it turned out) that he was at least 2.5 million years old, making him the oldest Homo discovered so far, and the tools associated with him , the oldest tools.
The trove of early human-related fossils discovered during the first two decades of prospecting on the eastern (and, later, western) shore of Lake Turkana shifted the focus of human-made activities from southern Africa , where it started, to East Africa. With these discoveries came a much more nuanced view of human prehistory. Leakey’s skills as an international organizer and fundraiser made this possible. He never aspired to master the mysteries of metric analysis, cladistics, etc., but he knew fossils as well as any anatomist, probably better.
In 1989 Leakey left his post as director of the National Museums of Kenya, announced the end of his involvement in human prehistory and moved on to his next life, in wildlife conservation. Leakey had a lifelong passion for nature, fueled, he would say, by the otherwise miserable times he and his younger brothers endured in remote parts of East Africa on fossil-hunting expeditions from their parents.
When Leakey was appointed head of what became the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) in 1989, it was another opportunity to do something that could not be done. In other words, take a corrupt and dysfunctional organization and turn it into an efficient institution with high morale and ethics. And save the elephants at the same time.
One of Leakey’s first actions was to burn 12 tons of elephant ivory, a spectacular international public relations stunt that was key to the eventual banning of the ivory trade. He also fired 1,500 department employees suspected of corruption, hired new employees, dressed them in military-style uniforms, armed them and ordered them to shoot poachers on sight. Some wondered what Leakey was “really” doing with what looked like a private army. Nevertheless, within three years, 100 poachers had died and Kenya’s elephant population was increasing for the first time in two decades, literally lifting it from extinction. International donors have rewarded these achievements by giving the country $140 million for wildlife conservation projects.
Rooting out corruption, as Leakey had done, inevitably irritated some corrupt people in high places. Many saw the 1993 plane crash as the inevitable pushback, basically. So did the subsequent government “secret investigation” which claimed to have uncovered “corruption and mismanagement” at the KWS. Leakey resigned in disgust in 1994. Making a lasting impact in a quasi-political arena was not as easy as in paleoanthropology, even for the now more seasoned Leakey.
A dedicated Kenyan national, Leakey was fearless and immersed in real politics in an attempt to root out the government corruption he saw bleeding his beloved country. Frustrated by President Moi’s refusal to change course, Leakey co-founded the opposition party, Safina, in 1995, another feat people said was impossible. It was a rough patch, literally: Leakey found himself verbally excoriated by the president, and physically beaten by his thugs. He became an MP, briefly, in 1998.
Moi had to relent in 1999 when international funding institutions cut off further aid unless government corruption could be curbed. Because of Leakey’s international reputation for high ethical standards, Moi appointed him secretary to his cabinet and head of the civil service, the nation’s second most powerful post, to do just that. Leakey approached this work the way he tackled each of these challenges: uncompromising and with a lot of promise.
The result was twofold: first, Leakey and his team began to get corruption under control enough within two years for the IMF and World Bank to reinstate $250 million in aid; second, embedded interests in the administration began to back down, once again, with Leakey’s proposed changes facing growing resistance and previous successes overruled by the courts. Leakey felt pressured to resign in early 2001, without commenting on his reason. He announced he just wanted to hang out at his “farm” on the edge of the Rift Valley nearly an hour from Nairobi, where he said he would grow grapes and relax.
Some have argued that if Leakey had not taken on the task of fighting corruption, Moi could have been expelled by international and domestic pressure. In fact, Moi had to give up the presidency in 2002 anyway. His chosen successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president, was defeated by opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki. This unprecedented success of an opposition party in Kenyan politics can in part be attributed to Leakey’s earlier efforts with Safina and her brief foray into the Moi arena.
Leakey had long been a foodie, enjoyed cooking and drinking good wine. The idea of him tending the vines and producing decent wine was part of his supposed plan after leaving politics, as well as achieving another feat that would have been impossible due to a terrain and a allegedly unfavorable climate. It produced some decent chardonnay and pinot noir. But, relax? Barely.
In 2004, he founded WildlifeDirect, a web-based organization whose goal was to save endangered species, especially great apes. He also became chairman of the Kenyan charter of Transparency International, a non-governmental organization that fights political corruption. None of this surprised his friends.
What surprised them, however, was that Leakey had returned to researching human prehistory. In 2005, he became a full professor at Stony Brook University, New York, as part of its Turkana Basin Institute. The aim of the institute was to expand research efforts in this region of Kenya to a scale and scope far exceeding all previous efforts. Leakey had finally set foot in academia with this project, even though he had no feet. And in 2007 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a great honor his father coveted but never offered himself. Not bad for a high school dropout.
He is survived by Meave and their daughters, Louise and Samira, and Anna, his daughter from his first marriage.
Richard Leakey, paleoanthropologist and ecologist, born December 19, 1944, died January 2, 2022