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Richard Leakey

Richard LeakeyAKA Richard Erskine Frere Leakey

Born: 19-Dec-1944
Birthplace: Nairobi, Kenya

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Anthropologist, Politician

Nationality: Kenya
Executive summary: Excavated Koobi Fora

Richard Leakey is well known in scientific circles, both as the son of famed anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, and as a notable paleontologist in his own right. Leakey's significant finds include the remains of "Turkana Boy", a 1.6 million year old Homo erectus skeleton, recovered virtually intact, as well as the 2.5 million year old "Black Skull" which forced paleontologists to drastically rethink the structure of the human family tree. Leakey captured great public attention with his book The People of the Lake, and has been featured in such high profile publications as Time Magazine and National Geographic. In the 1990s Leakey had a high profile within Kenyan public service, fighting successfully against elephant poaching, but unsuccessfully against political corruption.

Leakey's early years were shaped by his parents' museum work and archaeological digs. He found his first fossil at age six and often diverted himself with tracking animals. He struck out on his own at age 16, leaving school to start his own photographic safari company. The business did well, as did another venture, procuring animals for research. But eventually he found himself drawn back to archaeology.

In 1967 he joined an expedition into Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley. And on a routine flight over the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, he spotted what appeared to be fossil-bearing sedimentary rock. Preliminary surveys proved promising, but it was another five years before he could actually mount an organized expedition to the site. As the digging began the site proved to be rich with hominid fossils. Leakey and his team of excavators eventually made some two hundred significant fossil finds over the next 30 years. In 1984 they struck the Hope Diamond of paleoanthropological finds: a 1.6 million year old skeleton of Homo erectus. Identified as the fossilized remains of a nine-year-old individual, it was one of the most complete skeletons ever found.

Leakey's father had meanwhile passed away in 1972. In that same year Richard Leakey had remarried, to paleontologist Meave Epps. When not involved in a dig, Leakey was busy with his position as Director of the National Museums of Kenya (1968-89), a position formerly held by his father. But in 1989 Richard Leakey abandoned both the museum and fossil hunting in favor of wildlife conservation: Kenya's elephants were being slaughtered at an alarming rate, many killed by deserters from Somalia. Within a few years 85% of the herds had been wiped out.

Leakey took on the mantle of Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Faced with the prospect of imminent extinction of Kenya's elephants, he turned to drastic measures. Park rangers and special anti-poaching units were well armed and told to shoot all poachers on sight. As a result, the elephant herds stabilized and eventually began their first significant population rise in roughly a century. Leakey's famous name and his impressive results raised 100m in donations. But not everyone was thrilled with his approach. Leakey, who was intent on getting things done and not on lining political pockets, made a number of slippery enemies along the way.

Thus it was that when, in 1993, his propeller driven plane crashed mysteriously, sabotage was suspected. Leakey lost both his legs, but he was soon up and about on artificial limbs and back to work. Not to be so easily foiled, his enemies decided to go for the political kill. The government, headed by corrupt president Arap Moi, announced it had discovered "corruption and mismanagement" in the Kenya Wildlife Service. Leakey, who had steadfastly worked at weeding out this very thing throughout his administration, resigned in disgust.

In May of 1995, he channeled that disgust into the co-founding of a new political party opposition party, Safina. But President Moi and his cronies at various levels of government blocked the party from registering until the very eve of the 1997 election. The party therefore won only 6 seats, with Leakey only barely making it in as the nominated MP. But after six months he found himself fed up with political dealings. He got himself back into the Kenyan Wildlife Service, which had been horrendously mismanaged in his absence. Naturally he set immediately about putting things to rights.

But Leakey may have gotten in over his head two years later when he took the proffered position of civil service and cabinet secretary. To Leakey, it was a chance to make a difference. To the entrenched President Moi, it was a chance to have foreign donors start resupplying him with cash. Moi had found himself cut off from the gravy train in 1997 when international aid donors grew tired of his empty promises and mismanagement and froze any further money. It was made known however that having Leakey on board might make them change their minds.

Leakey was promoted and was given a fairly free hand to start cleaning things up, getting rid of corruption, clearing the lines for aid to go where it needed to go. But as soon as Moi's treasury had received a sufficient amount of the 250m promised by the IMF and World Bank, Leakey began to find his changes blocked and overturned by Moi's courts. In 2001, he was forced to resign. Some critics later claimed that if Leakey had simply kept his nose out of things, Moi would have been forced out as funds continued to dry up.

At present, Leakey says he is done with politics. For years he tolerated being threatened, attacked by thugs, even incidences of being whipped, beaten, and even attacked with an iron bar (despite his being in a wheelchair at the time). For now he appears content with guerrilla politics: arriving to make insightful speeches to rouse up local do-gooders and fundraisers, and then fleeing the country within 18 hours to avoid trouble.

He is also content, or so he claims, to leave paleontology and all the digging up to his wife Meave and daughter Louise, who picked up the torch when Mary Leakey passed away in 1996. His work with Kenya's Wildlife Service is through, but his commitment to the cause of preserving Kenya's elephants and other wildlife remains strong.

Father: Louis Leakey (anthropologist)
Mother: Mary Leakey (anthropologist)
Brother: Jonathan (b. 1940)
Brother: Philip (b. 1949)
Wife: Margaret Cropper (m. 1964, div. 1970)
Wife: Meave Epps (anthropologist, m. 1970)

    Explorers Club
    Risk Factors: Amputee

Author of books:
Origins (1977, with Roger Lewin)
People of the Lake (1978, with Roger Lewin)
Wildlife Wars: My Battle to Save Kenya's Elephants (2001)


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