A Conversation with Anti-Poaching Legend, Richard Leakey

Richard Leakey is a Kenyan politician, paleoanthropologist and conservationist. He is second of the three sons of the archaeologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, and is the younger half-brother of Colin Leakey.

He will be speaking at the WTTC Global Summit in Madrid on April 15th, 2015.

A more in-depth biography of his fascinating life is found at the end of this post.

You have been at the forefront of the anti-poaching campaign for many years. Can you tell us why this illegal trade is so difficult to stop?

The illegal trade is hard to stop because ivory has a high value at sale and low costs in procurement. Poverty is very real in elephant range states. The best solution is for a total ban on any ivory trade between countries and a further cessation of all domestic trade of items made from ivory. Ivory must be made worthless and to own it should mark you as a social outcast in all societies.

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The archaeological discoveries of the Leakey Family have revolutionised our understanding of human evolution. You most famously discovered ‘Turkana Boy’ who died 1.6 million years ago on the fossil-rich shores of Lake Turkana. Can you tell us about your project there and do you conceive that there is potential for a major African tourism destination?

I believe that the story of human evolution is an African story. All living people can trace their genetic story of origins to Africa. The subject including sites, monuments and possible exhibitions could become a very significant focal point tourism in Kenya. Clearly infrastructure is needed. The Turkana County Government is moving forward on much of this.

There are plans for a significant traffic corridor across the Serengeti National Park. If it were to be built on ground, it will be the end of the great migration and a large part of the zebra and wildebeest population will die of because they will be unable to reach the Mara in Kenya during the dry weather months. Lodges, jobs and related services will go at a phenomenal cost to Kenya and Tanzania as well. I fully support a transport corridor across the Serengeti but it should be elevated above ground to enable wildlife to move back and forth. This is easy and whilst costly, a huge investment for the economy of two countries.

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Masai Mara wildebeest migration in Tanzania, Africa.

Finally, in your opinion, what do governments in Africa need to do to support Travel and Tourism?

Governments in Africa can do much more to be proactive in tourism. Mid to long term planning is essential and inter-African co-operation is essential. At the moment, there seems to be far less seriousness in this sector than in others and neglect will ultimately close off great opportunities ahead.

Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, second son of Louis and Mary, was born on December 19, 1944. He participated in his parent’s field expeditions from an early age and was therefore well-placed to inherit their legacy. His efforts with paleoanthropology involved not only field research and discoveries but also many years serving as the director of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). Work at Koobi Fora began after a chance landing in the area led Richard to believe that the area held a wealth of fossil deposits. Together with a team from the NMK, Richard led the first expedition to Koobi Fora in 1968. Between 1968 and 1989 he coordinated the NMK field expeditions to the eastern and western shores of Lake Turkana. With the team of talented and experienced fossil hunters led by Mr. Kamoya Kimeu, many important finds were made, including early stone age tools dating to around 1.9 million years old, evidence of early members of the genus Homo, including skulls of Homo habilis and Homo erectus, and remains of robust australopithecines A. boisei and A.aethiopicus. The extraordinary discovery of the nearly complete 1.6 million year old skeleton of the “Nariokotome Boy” (or “Turkana Boy”), a Homo erectus youth, was undoubtedly the most important.

After Dr. Leakey was appointed the head of the Kenya Wildlife Services KWS in 1989, he was no longer able to continue with fieldwork, though he remains interested in paleoanthropology. As head of the KWS, Richard successfully combated elephant and rhino poaching and oversaw a reorganization of Kenya’s troubled national park system. In 1993, he lost both legs below the knee when the plane he was flying crashed. The following year, political opposition caused him to leave the KWS and he became more involved in Kenyan politics, serving as Secretary General of Kenyan opposition party Safina. In December 1997, he was elected to an opposition seat in the Kenyan parliament.

Dr. Leakey’s political career culminated in 1999 When then-president Moi appointed him head of Kenya’s Civil Service and of a so-called “Dream Team” of technocrats assembled from various fields and backgrounds to tackle management, corruption, and reorganization issues within the Kenyan government. He stepped down from this position in 2001, announcing at that time that he was retiring from politics.

Although subjected to political impasses, intimidation and physical violence, he continues to fight for political justice in Kenya. Dr. Richard Leakey continues to lecture on environmental themes and is currently involved in grassroots wildlife conservation projects. In his spare time he enjoys growing grapes and producing wine on his farm near Nairobi.

You can watch Dr. Leakey’s session live on the WTTC website on April 15th 2015 at this link: www.wttc.org/livestream

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