All achievers

Richard E. Leakey

Paleoanthropologist and Conservationist

If you want something done by me, suggest it can't be done.

Richard Erskine Leakey was born in Nairobi, Kenya, a grandson of English missionaries. His father and mother, Louis and Mary Leakey, were distinguished paleontologists who had pioneered the archaeological exploration of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. The second of three brothers, Richard Leakey spent his childhood trailing after his parents on archaeological digs, searching for the fossils of extinct species and human ancestors. He found his first fossil when he was only six — the jaw of an extinct species of giant pig — but he was more interested in tracking living animals in the wild.

Dr. Louis Leakey and his wife Mary Leakey, parents of Richard Leakey, display the skull of a human ancestor, Zinjanthropus, in 1959. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1959: Louis Leakey and wife, Mary, parents of Richard Leakey, display the skull of human ancestor, Zinjanthropus.

In 1959, Mary Leakey discovered the fossilized cranium of an extinct hominid, Zinjanthropus, in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. The discovery of a human ancestor of unprecedented antiquity focused the anthropological community’s attention on Africa as the cradle of mankind and brought the Leakey family international renown. But at 16, Richard Leakey wanted no part of squatting under the African sun, scratching the dirt for fossils. He dropped out of school and struck out on his own. He trapped animals and collected skeletons for research institutions, learned to fly, and started a business taking tourists on photographic safaris.

Richard Leakey and his father, Louis Leakey, examine fossils together in 1970. (National Geographic/Getty Images)
Richard Leakey and his father, Louis Leakey, examine fossils together in 1970. (National Geographic/Getty Images)

While still in his teens, he joined a former colleague of his parents on a fossil-hunting expedition to Lake Natron on the Kenya-Tanzania border. To his surprise, he enjoyed the venture, but lacking academic credentials, he received little credit for the team’s discoveries, so in 1965 he traveled to England to catch up on his schoolwork, with the intention of resuming his education. When this proved more difficult than expected, he returned to Kenya, where he managed paleontological expeditions and worked for the National Museum of Kenya. In 1967, he joined a successful expedition to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. On a flight between Omo and Nairobi, he spotted an expanse of sedimentary rock on the shores of Lake Turkana, formerly known as Lake Rudolf. Leakey suspected the area was rich with fossils. When a return trip confirmed his hunch, he secured funding from the National Geographic Society to run his own excavation. With a crew of Kenyan fossil hunters who called themselves the Hominid Gang, he uncovered a rich vein of artifacts that startled the world. After years in his family’s shadow, Richard Leakey had earned a reputation as an outstanding fossil hunter in his own right.

In 1968, at the age of 25, he won appointment as director of the National Museum of Kenya. Within a year, he was diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease and told he only had ten years to live. In spite of this diagnosis, he forged ahead with his life. He married zoologist Meave Epps, a primate specialist who had worked with his father at Tigoni Primate Research Center. As director of the Museum, Leakey undertook intensive excavation at Lake Turkana. Over the next 30 years, the site yielded more than 200 fossils, including two of the most spectacular finds of all time, a virtually complete Homo habilis skull in 1972 and a Homo erectus skull in 1975.

A 1977 <em>Time</em> magazine cover shows anthropologist Richard Leakey with a representation of <em>Homo habilis</em>. (Time &amp; Life Pictures/Getty Images)
A 1977 Time magazine cover shows anthropologist Richard Leakey with a representation of Homo habilis. (Getty)

By the end of the decade, Leakey’s kidney disease had grown severe, and he traveled to London to consult a specialist. He received a transplant from his younger brother, Philip, but within a month, rejection set in. The drugs that suppressed the rejection weakened his immune system, and he nearly died from an inflammation of the lungs. Leakey survived, recovered, and returned to Kenya. In the eight months he had spent abroad, he wrote an autobiography, One Life, although the most dramatic chapters of his life were yet to come.

In 1984, his team found one of the most historic specimens of all, the nearly complete skeleton of a young male Homo erectus. The 1.6-million-year-old skeleton, nicknamed Turkana Boy, is one of the most complete hominid fossil skeletons ever found. Leakey described this discovery and its significance in the book Origins Reconsidered (1992). In 1985, the site produced the skull of a previously unknown species of extinct hominid, Australopithecus aethiopicus.

As Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Richard Leakey burned tons of contraband elephant tusks, to take the ivory off the international market and to discourage the illegal killing of elephants. (© Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis)
As director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Richard Leakey burned tons of contraband elephant tusks, to take the ivory off the international market and to discourage the illegal killing of elephants. (© Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis)

In nearly 30 years as director of the National Museum, Richard Leakey had built the institution into a major international research center. In 1989, he accepted an appointment by Kenya’s president, Daniel Arap Moi, to serve as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service. As director he was called on to rescue the country’s chaotic park system and combat an epidemic of rhinoceros and elephant poaching. The illegal demand for the tusks of these endangered animals was pushing both species to the brink of extinction. Leakey created well-armed anti-poaching units, and when gentler measures failed, ordered the shooting of poachers. In 1989, Leakey staged a dramatic burning of 12 tons of confiscated tusks. The elephant population was soon stabilized and is now growing. Impressed with Leakey’s achievement, the World Bank approved substantial grants to the Wildlife Service.

Although Leakey’s accomplishments won international recognition, he had made enemies at home. In 1993, his plane suffered an unexplained equipment failure and crashed in the mountains outside Nairobi. The accident cost Leakey both his legs. An expert pilot, he had good reason to suspect sabotage by political enemies. Undeterred, Leakey returned to work, but political opposition forced his resignation in 1994. He recounted the experience in the book Wildlife Wars: My Battle to Save Kenya’s Elephants (2001).

1995: At a press conference at Safina party headquarters, Richard Leakey displays whip lashes he received in an attack outside a court house. He accused police and supporters of the ruling party of participating in the attack. (AP Images)
1995: At a press conference at Safina party headquarters, Richard Leakey displays whiplashes he received in an attack outside a courthouse. He accused police and supporters of the ruling party of participating in the attack.

Long impatient with the corruption and inefficiency of Kenya’s one-party government, Leakey and other dissidents founded the Safina party in 1995. For two years, the government withheld legal recognition of the party. Government supporters subjected Leakey to public humiliation, death threats and constant surveillance, and finally attacked him with whips outside the courthouse, but Richard Leakey could not be intimidated.

As Secretary General of Safina, he won a seat in his country’s parliament, where he negotiated constitutional reform and introduced laws protecting the disabled. In 1999, international lending institutions cut off aid to Kenya because of rampant corruption in government. Leakey’s sometime adversary, President Moi, asked Leakey to join the administration as Cabinet Secretary and head of the Public Service, with a mission to restore the integrity of the civil administration. Leakey soon earned the confidence of international donor institutions, and lending to Kenya resumed.

Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is presented with the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement by famed undersea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle during the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.
Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is presented with the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement by famed undersea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle during the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.

After retiring from government in 2001, Richard Leakey served as a leading spokesman for Transparency International, a global coalition to fight corruption, and for the Great Apes Survival Project, a United Nations effort to defend mankind’s closest relatives. His books include The Origin of Humankind (1994) and The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Mankind (1995). His wife, Meave Leakey, and his daughter, Louise, carried on the family mission of searching for the evidence of human origins in Africa, while Richard Leakey continued his work as a highly public advocate for the disabled and for Kenya’s kidney patients.

By 2015, the poaching of wildlife that Richard Leakey had done so much to stop in the 1990s had returned to crisis levels. President Uhuru Kenytatta asked Richard Leakey to return to the Kenya Wildlife Service as chairman. At age 70, Richard Leakey took up the challenge, continuing his lifelong service to the environment and to the continent that gave birth to the human race.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2007

Richard Leakey won fame as a paleoanthropologist while still in his early twenties, with sensational discoveries of the fossil remains of our most ancient ancestors, but his subsequent career as an author, conservationist, government official and political activist of unyielding courage has been even more extraordinary.

For nearly 30 years, he directed the National Museum of Kenya, creating a world-class center for the study of human origins. As director of Kenya’s National Wildlife Service, he led a successful campaign against poaching of the endangered African elephant. After surviving a plane crash that cost him both his legs, he founded an opposition party to combat the corruption of the country’s one-party government. Subjected to constant harassment, death threats and even beatings by the regime’s supporters, he won election to parliament, where he forced reform of Kenya’s constitution.

As a government official, he continued his campaign against corruption in the civil service and secured a resumption of international aid. He remains a passionate and effective advocate for the environment, for the rights of the disabled, and for the cause of democracy in his beloved Kenya. In his 70th year he returned to government service as chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

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How would you describe your childhood, growing up in Nairobi?

Richard Leakey: I think it was an unusual childhood, looking around the world today.  We lived in rather simple circumstances.  My father was a public employee running the then-museum, not well paid.  He was really quite busy, didn’t see a lot of him.  My mother was working as an archeologist in the museum.  She was fairly busy and I think never really liked having children.  So we were rather left alone as boys, and there were four years between us.  So we weren’t at all close to each other, my younger brother and myself and my older brother.  We went to a nearby school, which I didn’t like, found it irritating and boring. The good parts about my growing up in Kenya was that my parents, two or three times a year, would go off some way into the wilder places to look for artifacts and archeological traces, fossils, and these were generally in areas where there was a lot of wildlife, a lot of natural beauty, a lot of adventure, and we used to enormously look forward to these outings for two or three weeks at a time where we lived pretty simply, in very simple tents, but it was just a tremendous adventure.  I think more than anything else, it brought me in close touch with nature and the environment and gave me a feel for the land.

Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, a steep-sighted raveen in the Great Rift Valley that stretches across East Africa, site of the Leakey family's discovery of early human fossils. (Dan Lundberg)
Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, a steep-sighted ravine in the Great Rift Valley that stretches across East Africa, site of the Leakey family’s discovery of early human fossils. The Valley is a continuous geographic trench, 3,700 miles in length, that runs from eastern Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley to Mozambique in southeastern Africa. (Dan Lundberg)

We’ve read that you discovered your first fossil at the age of six.

Richard Leakey: Well, those stories become sort of currency. It’s true that from the age of about three or four, I’d go with my brothers on expeditions. This was an expedition on the shores of Lake Victoria. It’s a particularly hot and humid area, and usually, fossils are found in areas where there is very little shade. They’re open areas where erosion has carved up a lot of rough badlands country. So there is very little opportunity to get out of the sun. My parents were excavating some particularly interesting bone. It was late morning, and I had been with them since early morning. I was very hot, there were a lot of flies, and it seemed to me well past the time that I should be taken back for a swim in the lake and lunch. Like all little boys, I was saying, “What time is it? When are we going? Why don’t you stop?” or “Can’t I go back?” I know I was a pain in the neck.

My father said, “Just go off and find something to do.  Find a fossil.  Push off!”  So, I pushed off.  I wasn’t usually encouraged in this way and had a little brush and a dental pick. I didn’t go very far, and funnily enough I found a bone washing out on the ground.  I had been told to dig it up.  So, I started picking away at it and got quite intrigued because the bone went on into the ground, brushed away a little more dirt and picked away a few more cobbles, and a tooth appeared. Pushed on a little bit more, and another tooth appeared, and it really became quite absorbing for a five-year-old.  So, I forgot all about lunch and the flies and was happily poking away at my little bone, when a shadow sort of fell over me, and they said, “What have you got there?” I said, “Well, it’s a bone.  Look, it’s got teeth, and it’s going on.  There’s more of it,” and they said, “Oh.  Why don’t you move off?  Find another.  We’ll take this one over.” And I said, “Well, at least we go to lunch.”  “No.  Lunch will wait now because we want to see what you found.” So, I sort of got into worse trouble. Lost my bone, lost an early lunch, lost a swim in the lake, and thought, “Damn it! That’s no way to live,” and I sort of got very negative about paleontology from that day on.

What didn’t you like about school?

Richard Leakey: I never really understood why, if people had the knowledge, we were being taught it. It just made no sense to me. For instance, if people could add two and two and make four, why should I have to do it? It was obvious that there were people better at it than me. Why should I be learning these things? I remember thinking, when they came up with tables that you could refer to, why not carry a book of tables with you? Why not carry a slide-rule with you? Now, with these pocket calculators that young people are allowed to take into examinations and tests, why were we not given that opportunity? All right, we didn’t have a calculator. It just seemed an exercise in trying to beat one into submission of some kind, and I didn’t like that at all.

What interested you as a kid?

Richard Leakey: I was not interested in sports.  Chasing a ball seemed to me a particularly unnecessary form of strenuous activity.  I could see no reason to kick a ball and then run after it.  It didn’t make sense to me. I guess I was not a good sport player, and therefore, I found joining a team — I was always the one who got the blame for not doing the right thing — and so I didn’t enjoy team sports. I didn’t enjoy the teachers.  I didn’t enjoy the discipline of being — and in those days, the schools in Kenya were quite disciplined.  If one got into quite serious trouble, corporal punishment, you got beaten for the most minor infractions of the laws. We used to wear short trousers, just above the knee, and then long stockings which had to be three fingers below the knee, and if one’s shorts were too short or too long and the stockings had slipped because the garters weren’t tight, one would get called up and punished. This seemed to me a form of unfair treatment, and I just didn’t like it. But you could not complain to your parents because that was considered to be weak and whingeing, and neither parents nor the authorities looked well on somebody who couldn’t take his punishment.  So it just was a lonely time for me.

Dr. Alan Walker and Richard Leakey unearth the long bones of "Turkana boy" and carefully place them in the box for the trip to the field camp and later to the National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi. In the background, Kamoya Kimeu removes sediment from the bone bearing layer. (© 1985 David L. Brill, Brill Atlanta)
1985: Dr. Alan Walker and Richard Leakey unearth the long bones of “Turkana boy” and carefully place them in the box for the trip to the field camp and later to the National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi. (David L. Brill, Brill Atlanta)

Were there books that interested you when you were growing up? Were there events that influenced you?

Richard Leakey: I think stories rather than books.

Keys to success — Passion

I loved to hear stories from periodically listening to my parents and their visitors.  They had a lot of visitors because they were quite successful people.  Hearing about how people had done extraordinary things, gone to extraordinary places. I was particularly excited about the idea of science, discovering new things.  My parents used to talk, as I have done to my children, about the excitement of being the first to know something, that you know later will become known to millions of people through publication, the first to see something and to understand something.  Those sort of concepts certainly excited me.

I think watching nature and puzzling about a conflict which still puzzles me today. That is, the idea that we were so different from everything else around us and that we were created separately.

I had relatives who were very much in the church and an uncle who was an archbishop in the church in East Africa. The sort of awareness that he believed that humans were created in a special way, created in God’s image and had souls and consciences and felt pain and joy, whereas the others didn’t — whether it was a dog or a cat or an elephant — that these were somehow just chunks of flesh that were wandering around their own way, I always found that very hard to understand. I suppose one of the moments I remember most as a young boy, when the present British Queen’s father died, and she was to become the Queen of England, and there were church services, and I was sort of in a religious-oriented school, and so there were masses and church services that we boys were forced to attend.  It was a Catholic school, and not being Catholic, not in fact being christened or baptized, I was excluded from mass and things of that kind. I remember sitting outside and found a couple of praying mantises who amused me because praying mantises often sit up with their hands together like this, and I wondered if they, too, had been caught up in this conundrum. I remember a happy two hours — when everyone was singing their hearts out — communing with two praying mantises about what they thought of the whole thing.  So those sort of things amused me.

What were you like in high school? Were you ever a believer? Did you have religion when you were younger?

Richard Leakey: I didn’t ever have religion, but I had an uncle who was very much a senior churchman.  I referred to him, the Archbishop of East Africa, and he had the school chaplain as a friend of his, and they tried extremely hard to coerce me into religion, and I became very anti. More anti than I think was necessary, but I simply would not accede to being forced into this, and would frequently be kept out of classes because of irreverent comments and mocking this religious stuff. Frankly, it stayed with me to this day. In fact, don’t get me going.  I’m almost as bad as Richard Dawkins on this issue.

Richard Leakey addresses the international press in front of the National Museums in Nairobi, 1996. Leakey formed the opposition Safina party to oppose abuses like the illegal sale of Museum land to a private individual. (AP Images)
Richard Leakey addresses the international press in front of the National Museums in Nairobi, 1996. Leakey formed the opposition Safina party to oppose abuses like the illegal sale of museum land to a private individual.

You were, after all, white growing up in an African country. How did that affect you?

Richard Leakey: I was at an entirely white school. It was a segregated school. My father, Louis, had grown up in a mission family. He had been inititated into the Kikuyu tribe. He was an expert in Kikuyu custom and folklore, and during the years of the Mau Mau, the revolution that led to the British granting of independence of Kenya, he had worked quite closely with the government of the day, but had also retained and maintained very close relationships with the local people.

I grew up with a sense that I belonged with the Africans, I belonged with the Kikuyu, I belonged with the local people, and that somehow my contemporaries at school were children of settlers, children of administrators who clearly had racist instincts, had no pleasant ideas or social contacts or experience with people of darker skin, which I did through my father’s work. And so I always felt a bit puzzled and a bit irritated and certainly used to get very angry at some of the insults and attacks. I suppose that in some ways, they managed to turn me into a racist, but I became anti-white in the process, and I was often known as a — to use the terrible epithet, but it was one that was used against me on frequent occasions — as a, quote, “nigger lover,” close quotes. I felt very glad to have earned that epithet, in the sense that I believed that the majority of the people were the people that I belonged to, and had no wish to be associated with the settler community or the others. And that’s gone through to the present day.