Dr. Richard Leakey
TOn February 10 the World Ecology Award was presented to Dr. Richard Leakey by Chancellor Blanche Touhill at a Gala Dinner
held at the Ritz Carlton in Clayton. Dr. Leakey is both an ecologist and
paleoanthropologist. He excavated the bones of Turkana Boy, believed to
be the first complete skeleton of Homo erectus and
is credited with a key role in halting elephant poaching through a worldwide
ban of the ivory trade.
Richard Leakey was born in Nairobi, Kenya on December 19, 1944, the son
of Louis and Mary Leakey. He left high school at 17 and established a successful
photographic safari company. At this time he showed little interest in following
in the paleoanthropological footsteps of parents. However, he joined a team
of fossil-hunters working in the region of Lake Natron and on a flight back
to Nairobi he observed what looked like fossil-bearing sedimentary rock
near Lake Turkana. He obtained funding from the National Geographic Society
and was appointed Administrative Director of the National Museums of Kenya.
He spent the next three decades excavating sites on the eastern shore of
Lake Turkana and, together with a team of scientists, found more than two
hundred hominid fossils of excellent quality, including Turkana Boy.
His career at the National Museum of Kenya ended when President Daniel
Arap Moi appointed him as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
His mandate was to bring to an end the rampant elephant poaching that had
decimated herds throughout Kenya. Poaching had also reduced tourism, an
important source of foreign exchange for Kenya. Leakey supported a proposal
to declare the African elephant an endangered species and, in 1989, CITES
(Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) listed the species
as endangered, thereby making all trade in elephant products illegal. This
led to a decline in the market price of ivory, removing the economic rationale
for poaching. Leakey was a prodigious fund-raiser while with the KWS, raising
some $150 million from Western governments. He also raised park fees and
established community development projects. He reasoned that if monies raised
from ecotourism could be shared with the people who lived around the national
parks, they would have greater incentive to protect Kenya's wildlife. This
idea received significant support from international agencies but was less
favorably viewed by some politicians in Kenya. Following increasingly bitter
attacks, Leakey resigned from the KWS in 1994. He then pursued a political
career founding a new political party in 1995. The party, named Safina has
attacked corruption and political repression in Kenya. In December 1997,
he was elected to an opposition seat in the Kenyan parliament. In a surprising
move, in 1998, Richard Leakey again became Director of the Kenya Wildlife
Service but in 1999 relinquished this position to become Kenya's new Head
of the Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.
Richard Leakey is married to Meave Leakey, an important paleoanthropologist
in her own right. Her 1995 discovery of an approximately 4-million-year-old
skeleton in the Lake Turkana region is the oldest known specimen of a hominid
that walked upright on two legs. With science writer Roger Lewin, Richard
Leakey co-authored Origins (1977), People of the Lake
(1976), Origins Reconsidered (1993), and The Sixth Extinction (1995). He also wrote an autobiography, One Life (1984). In 1993
he lost the lower half of both legs in a plane crash.