Anthropologist, conservationist and eternal optimist Richard Leakey dies at 77

Richard Leakey in Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, on 19 September 2017.
Richard Leakey in Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, on 19 September 2017. © AP /Petr David Josek

The world-renowned Kenyan fossil hunter and conservationist Richard Leakey, whose groundbreaking discoveries helped prove that humans evolved in Africa, has died at the age of 77.


The legendary paleoanthropologist famously discovered Turkana Boy, a near-complete Homo erectus skeleton, during one of his archaeological digs in 1984.

His previous expeditions in the 1970s recalibrated scientific understanding of human evolution, with the discovery of the skulls of Homo habilis in 1972 and Homo erectus in 1975.

Born on 19 December, 1944, Leakey was destined for palaeoanthropology, the study of the human fossil record, as the middle son of Louis and Mary Leakey, perhaps the world's most famous discoverers of ancestral hominids.

He initially turned his back on the family business, and tried his hand as a safari guide.

But things changed when at 23 years old, despite having no formal archaeological training, Leakey won a research grant from the National Geographic Society to dig on the shores of northern Kenya's Lake Turkana.

Fighting ivory poachers

Beyond his archaeological findings, Leakey was also one of the world's leading voices against the global ivory trade, which in the 1980s was still legal.

As the slaughter of African elephants reached a crescendo, in 1989 Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi appointed Leakey to lead the national wildlife agency, which was soon renamed the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

That year Leakey pulled off a spectacular publicity stunt by burning a pyre of ivory, setting fire to 12 tonnes of tusks to make the point that they have no value once removed from elephants.

Leakey also held his nerve, without apology, when implementing a shoot-to-kill order against armed poachers. 

Richard Leakey: what caused his plane to crash in 1993

Defiant in the face of adversity

Leakey remained energetic into his 70s, despite bouts of skin cancer, a kidney transplant and liver disease, and being wheelchair-bound after losing both his legs in a airplane crash.

In 1993, his Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley where he had done much of his most famous work, and resolved to continue.

"Let me try and put it in perspective. If it had been a terrible plane crash, my legs would have lost me. As it happened, I lost my legs, most of me remains," he told RFI.

"I think in a tragedy of that kind, you can be very easily persuaded that you've been singled out for for unfair treatment by the world or fate. Or you can think 'Well, I'm very lucky to be alive'."

Kenyan politics

The year after his accident, Leakey was forced out of the KWS and began a third career as a prominent opposition politician, joining the chorus of voices against Moi's corrupt regime.

His political career met with less success than his previous endeavours, however, and in 1998 he was back in the fold, appointed by Moi to head Kenya's civil service, which put him in charge of fighting official corruption.

The task proved impossible, and he resigned after just two years.

Richard Leakey on his relationship with President Moi

"I think one has to accept that politics in any country is a rough and tumble. Possibly, it's slightly rough, and there are more tumbles, in some parts of the world than others," Leakey told RFI In 1999. 

"Mr Moi didn't personally beat me around the head. Verbally, he was fairly outrageous, but he was speaking as a politician against somebody who obviously provided some sort of concern at the time. I think in political life, these things happen."

At the time, Leakey was quick to underline that he had been working for the country, and not for Moi, when it came to saving Kenya's national parks for future generations.

Speaking about his exit from Kenyan politics, he told RFI: "I would hope to live another 15 years, 20 years of active life.

"Who's to say that after serving the country is the capacity as director of wildlife for three or four years, that I can't go back to politics and be a distraction to whoever the government is?"

In 2015, as Africa faced another elephant-poaching crisis, President Uhuru Kenyatta asked Leakey to return to the helm at KWS, this time as chairman of the board, a position he would hold for three years.

"I don't think you can declare the outcome of a race until it's completed and my race is my life. I haven't completed it yet," said Leakey.

Kenyatta announced Monday that Leakey had died the day before, but he did not specify a cause of death.

Deputy President William Ruto said Leakey "fought bravely for a better country" and inspired Kenyans with his zeal for public service.

At the time of his death, Leakey was serving as chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University in New York.

From the Archive: Richard Leakey on RFI's 'Voices' progamme in 1999

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