World-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, known for his fossil tracing and conservation work in his native Kenya, has died at the age of 77, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced.
Leakey, whose groundbreaking discoveries helped prove that humanity had evolved in Africa, remained energetic until his 70s despite attacks of skin cancer, kidney and liver disease.
“I received with great sadness this afternoon the sad news of the death of Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey,” Kenyatta said in a statement.
Born on December 19, 1944, Leakey was destined for paleoanthropology – the study of the human fossil record – as the middle son of Louis and Mary Leakey, perhaps the world’s most famous discoverers of ancestral hominids.
Initially, Leakey tried his hand at safari guidance, but things changed when, at 23, he won a National Geographic Society research grant to dig on the shores of northern Kenya’s Turkana Lake, even though he had no formal archaeological had no training.
In the 1970s, he led expeditions that recalibrated the scientific understanding of human evolution with the discovery of the skulls of Homo habilis, 1.9 million years old, in 1972, and Homo erectus, 1.6 million years old, in 1975.
A Time magazine cover followed by Leakey posing with a Homo habilis model under the headline: How Man Became Man. Then, in 1981, his fame grew further as he directed The Making of Mankind, a seven-part BBC television series.
Yet the most famous fossil find was yet to come: the discovery of an extraordinary, almost complete Homo erectus skeleton during one of its excavations in 1984, nicknamed Turkana Boy.
The fight against ivory poachers
As the slaughter of African elephants reached a crescendo in the late 1980s, driven by an insatiable demand for ivory, Leakey emerged as one of the world’s leading voices against the then legal global ivory trade.
President Daniel arap Moi appointed Leakey in 1989 to lead the National Wildlife Agency, which will soon be called the Kenya Wildlife Service, or KWS.
That year, he designed a spectacular publicity stunt by burning a pile of ivory and setting fire to 12 tons of teeth to the point that they had no value once removed from elephants.
He also unhesitatingly held his courage when he executed a shoot-to-kill order against armed poachers.
In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley where he made his name. He survived, but lost both legs.
“At that time there were regular threats against me and I lived with armed guards. But I decided not to be a playwright and said, ‘They tried to kill me.’ “I chose to get on with life,” he told the Financial Times.
Leakey was forced out of KWS a year later and began a third career as a leading opposition politician, joining the chorus of voices against Moi’s corrupt government.
However, his political career was less successful, and in 1998 he was back in the group, appointed by Moi as head of Kenya’s civil service, which put him in charge of combating official corruption. The task, however, was impossible, and he resigned after only two years.
In 2015, when another elephant poaching crisis gripped Africa, President Kenyatta asked Leakey to take the helm at KWS again, this time as chairman of the board, a position he would hold for three years.
Speaking softly and seemingly without personal vanity, Leakey stubbornly refused to give in to health problems.
“Richard was a very good friend and a true loyal Kenyan. May he rest in peace, “Paula Kahumbu, head of Wildlife Direct, a conservation group founded by Leakey, posted on Twitter.