Richard Erskine Frere Leakey (born December 19, 1944) is a paleontologist, archaeologist and an activist, famous for his discovery of "Turkana Boy" and his fight to preserve wildlife of the African continent. The son of well-known paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, Richard, along with his wife and daughter, has continued the family tradition of research in East Africa. In addition to his contribution to our knowledge of human evolution, Richard Leakey has devoted his life to wildlife preservation and environmental activism. Thus, his contributions extend both to understanding our prehistoric past and to the protection of the environment for our future.
Richard Leakey is the second of the three sons of the archaeologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey. He was born in Nairobi, Kenya, on December 19, 1944. A high school dropout, Leakey discovered his love of paleontology when he led an expedition to a fossil site he had discovered while flying. Frustrated by the lack of recognition he received for his accomplishments due to having no scientific credentials, Leakey left for England to continue his education. However, after six months, and the completion of his high school program, Leakey returned home to continue his safaris and work at the National Museum of Kenya. He never obtained a university degree.
In 1966 Leakey married archeologist Margaret Cooper and started working on excavations. Although lacking a formal education, he benefited from the fame of his well-known parents. He received funds from the National Geographic Society to carry out his research. Leakey’s first major involvement in fossil-hunting began in 1967, at the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia. In 1968 he became director of the National Museum of Kenya, a position formerly held by his father. He continued with excavations near Lake Turkana in Kenya.
In 1969 he divorced Margaret and in 1970 married Maeve Epps, a paleontologist who later became famous for her discovery of Kenyanthropus platyops ("flat-faced man from Kenya"). They have two daughters from this marriage, Louise (born in 1972) and Samira (born in 1974). Louise also continues the family tradition of paleontological research in Kenya.
Following diagnosis of a terminal kidney disease, Leakey was forced to slow down his work, and so he focused on running Kenya’s museum system. In 1979, Leakey’s condition worsened and he had to receive a kidney transplant from his brother, Philip, in order to survive. After a long recovery Leakey continued with his work, both on excavations and in the museum.
In the later years of his life, Leakey became more interested in politics than in paleontology. He served as the head of the Kenyan Wildlife Service in early 1990s, and formed a new political party to fight corruption in Kenyan government in late 1990s. He was appointed a Cabinet Secretary in the government in 1999, but was forced to resign from the position in 2001. After this Leakey continued to advocate for preservation of wildlife in Africa, giving lectures and speeches around the globe.
His wife, Meave, continues to be a successful paleoanthropologist, discovering several new species, including Australopithecus anamensis, and Kenyanthropus platyops. Their daughter, Louise, continues in her parents’ footsteps, having completed a Ph.D. in paleontology in 2001, and actively conducting paleoanthropological research in Kenya.
The work of Richard Leakey can be divided into two categories: his work as an anthropologist and his work as an activist and politician.
Building upon the legacy of his parents, Richard Leakey continued to work toward the understanding of human evolution. In 1969, his discovery of a cranium of Australopithecus boisei caused great excitement. A Homo habilis skull (ER 1470) and a Homo erectus skull (ER 3733), discovered in 1972 and 1975, respectively, were among the most significant finds of Leakey's early expeditions. In 1978, an intact cranium of Homo erectus (KNM-ER 3883) was discovered.
In 1984 he made his most important discovery—"Turkana Boy," discovered by Kamoya Kimeu, a member of Leakey’s' team, was the nearly complete skeleton of a 12-year-old (or possibly 9-year-old) Homo erectus who died 1.6 million years ago. It was one of the first well-preserved skeletons of that origin ever found. Leakey and Roger Lewin described the experience of this find in their book Origins Reconsidered (1992).
Shortly after the discovery of Turkana Boy, Leakey and his team discovered a skull of a new species, Australopithecus aethiopicus (WT 17000). Both discoveries were important in establishing the theory of African origins of human beings. In his writings with Lewin, Leakey proposed that the australopithecines co-existed with homo habilis three million years ago. Subsequently, the australopithecines became extinct, and homo habilis evolved into homo erectus, the direct ancestor of homo sapiens, modern human beings.
Richard Leakey is also a well known activist and politician. His confrontational approach to the issue of human-wildlife conflict in national parks was a source of controversy. He espoused the view that the parks were self-contained ecosystems that had to be fenced in and humans kept out. Leakey's bold and incorruptible nature also offended local politicians.
In 1989 he was appointed head of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) by President Daniel Arap Moi, in response to the international outcry over the poaching of elephants and the impact it was having on Kenyan wildlife. With characteristically bold steps, Leakey created special, well-armed, anti-poaching units that were authorized to shoot poachers on sight. The poaching menace was dramatically reduced. Impressed by Leakey's transformation of the KWS, the World Bank approved grants worth U.S. $140 million. Richard Leakey, President Arap Moi, and the KWS made international news headlines when a stockpile of 12 tons of ivory was burned in 1989.
In 1993, Richard Leakey lost both his legs when his propeller-driven plane crashed. Sabotage was suspected, but never proved. In a few months Richard Leakey was walking again on artificial limbs. Around this time, the Kenyan government announced that a secret probe had found evidence of corruption and mismanagement in the KWS. An annoyed Leakey resigned publicly in a press conference in January 1994. He wrote about his experiences at the KWS in his book Wildlife Wars: My Battle to Save Kenya's Elephants.
In May 1995, Leakey joined a group of Kenyan intellectuals in launching a new political party—the Safina Party. Their main agenda was to battle corruption in Kenyan government. "If KANU and Mr. Moi will do something about the deterioration of public life, corruption and mismanagement, I'd be happy to fight alongside them. If they won't, I want somebody else to do it." announced Richard Leakey. The Safina party was routinely harassed and even its application to become an official political party was not approved until 1997. Leakey’s relationship with president Moi seriously deteriorated.
In 1999, Moi was forced to appoint Richard Leakey as cabinet secretary and overall head of the civil service at the insistence of international donor institutions as a pre-condition for the resumption of donor funds. Leakey's second stint in the civil service lasted until 2001, when he was forced to resign again. He was accused of an arrogant and autocratic style of leadership and racism. After that he left politics, but continued to fight against corruption through public speeches and lectures. Additionally, although no longer active in fieldwork, he has continued to give lectures and write books about the danger of environmental degradation and the need for wildlife preservation.
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