Reference Entry

Leakey, Richard Erskine Frere

Robert Fay

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Leakey, Richard Erskine Frere

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Richard Erskine Frere Leakey's parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, introduced him to paleoanthropology, the study of fossilized remains of extinct humanlike creatures called hominids. The elder Leakeys, whose discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania revolutionized theories of early Human Evolution, often took Richard with them on their fossil-hunting expeditions. Leakey left Nairobi's Duke of York School at the age of seventeen to start a business leading wildlife photography safaris.Although he had no formal training, Leakey began fossil-hunting when he was only nineteen. His most famous discoveries were made in the area around Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolf) in northern Kenya, where he uncovered more than 200 fossils of early hominids. These include an almost complete skeleton of an adolescent boy found at Nariokotome, on the western shore. The 1.6-million-year-old “Turkana Boy” is the most complete skeleton ever found from that period of human evolution. Leakey was also involved in the discovery of the seventeen-million-year-old jaw, teeth, and skull fragments of an apelike creature, Sivapithecus, a possible ancestor of both humans and apes. He has written about these and other findings in three books coauthored by Roger Lewin, Origins (1977), People of the Lake (1976), and Origins Reconsidered (1992).Leakey's daughter Louise also participates in the “family business” of fossil-hunting expeditions, as has his wife, noted paleoanthropologist Maeve Leakey, who has made several important discoveries. In 1995 she discovered an approximately four-million-year-old skeleton in the Lake Turkana region, the oldest known specimen of a hominid that walked upright.Leakey served as the director of the National Museums of Kenya from 1968 to 1989, helping to establish it as one of the most prestigious in Africa. In 1989 Kenya's president, Daniel Arap Moi appointed Leakey director of the Kenya Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (later the Kenya Wildlife Service, or KWS). One of Leakey's main duties as head of the KWS was to ensure the survival of Kenya's threatened and endangered wild animals, particularly the African Elephant. Leakey took the controversial stance of supporting a total ban on the Ivory Trade, fearing that even restricted sale would invite poaching. Though Leakey succeeded in reducing elephant poaching and the black-market sale of ivory, his views upset the many southern African nations that had thriving elephant populations as well as surplus stocks of ivory and needed the money that sale of those stocks would provide.Leakey's conservation policies also caused tensions with Kenyan farmers and pastoralists. Only one-fourth of the wild animals in Kenya—elephants, Zebras, and wildebeests among them—are confined to national parks, while the rest roam freely, and thus may destroy crops, prey on vulnerable livestock, and injure and kill people. In addition, farmers and pastoralists living around the parks see little of the tourism revenue that the parks provide. Many believed that Leakey, who chose to reinvest the bulk of this tourism revenue into the national park system, was protecting animals to the detriment of Kenyan people.These disagreements became bitter when officials in Moi's administration charged Leakey with racism, corruption, and mismanagement of the KWS. Leakey denied these claims, saying that his critics were upset at his refusal to allow mining and other commercial ventures in Kenya's National Parks. Leakey continued these efforts despite a 1993 plane crash that resulted in the loss of the lower half of both of his legs. In 1994, however, Leakey resigned as director of the KWS, citing a “campaign of vilification” carried out by his opponents. After his resignation, Leakey became disenchanted with Moi's government. In 1995 he helped found a new political party, Safina (Swahili for Noah's Ark), which attacked corruption and political repression in Kenya. Despite these disagreements Leakey resigned his parliamentary seat in October 1998 to accept reappointment as head of the KWS. In July 1999 Moi appointed him head of the civil service and secretary to the cabinet in a new drive intended to fight government corruption. Leakey remained in those positions until March 2001.Leakey continues to promote environmental conservation through lectures and books. In 2001 he published Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa's Natural Treasures. He is currently a visiting professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University.See also Leakey, Louis; Pastoralism; Tourism in Africa.

Reference Entry.  734 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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