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Richard Leakey, Kenyan Conservationist, Dies at 77

Published by: Carolyn Brooks Fleming on Jan 2, 2022.

Richard Leakey, a Kenyan archaeologist and conservationist known for his efforts to protect the African elephant population, died on January 2, 2022. He was 77.

Leaky was born to the work he embraced — his parents were Luis and Mary Leakey, palaeontologists who helped prove that human evolution began in Africa. Richard Leakey and his wife Meave added new evidence to support his parents’ theory when their team discovered the “Turkana Boy” at Lake Turkana, Kenya. Those fossils indicate that our human ancestors walked on two legs at least 4.2 million years ago. Leakey once said, “We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man.”

Leaky sought to end the ivory trade which decimated the African elephant population. He campaigned to equate the possession of poached tusks with  trafficking cocaine. He lamented, “The elephants were being slaughtered in masses. Some were even killed in the vicinity of big tourist hotels.” The elephant population in Kenya is now increasing, with a current population of more than 36,000.

He served as director of the National Museums of Kenya, board chairman at the Kenya Wildlife Service, and chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University in the United States. He also mentored young Kenyans who will carry on his work.

In addition to his archaeological and conservation efforts, Leaky entered the civil service arena to improve life for Kenyan citizens. He explained, “The greatest problem we face is the growing number of people living in poverty. The related sense of hopelessness has to be impacting on every part of environmental management.” He co-founded the Safina Party in 1995 and was the head of Kenya’s Public Service from 1999 to 2001.

Leakey overcame many obstacles in life, including two kidney transplants, a liver transplant, and a plane crash that destroyed his legs. His cause of death has not been released. He is survived by his wife Meave and two children.

To learn more, read these quotes by Richard Leakey.