Paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and political leader Richard Leakey died at his home near Nairobi, Kenya, on 2 January. He was 77 years old. The son of Louis and Mary Leakey, whose fossil discoveries in East Africa helped prove that humans evolved in Africa, Richard Leakey added to their legacy with numerous important finds in Kenya, where he was born. He later added conservation to his focus, working to end the poaching of elephants for ivory. Throughout, he supported students and scientists, especially other Kenyans, studying their country’s scientific riches.
“Nothing was impossible for him,” says Carol Ward, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who credits Leakey with helping shape her career. “He made everything he touched larger than life. He did that for paleoanthropology, and because of his visionary touch, his legacy extends far beyond the science.”
“He believed strongly that we should create a movement for the love of nature” adds Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Wildlife Direct, a Kenyan nonprofit Leakey co-founded in 1994. He “felt all people should understand the impact we’re having on the planet.”
At the time of his death, Leakey was a faculty member of Stony Brook University and director of the Turkana Basin Institute, which he founded to provide research and training facilities for scientists and to house fossils discovered nearby. He was also busy planning an international Museum of Humankind in Ngaren, Kenya, near his home on the edge of the Rift Valley.
Although he dropped out of secondary school and never attended university, Leakey was schooled in science “at the knees” of his parents. He found his first fossil, the jawbone of an extinct giant pig, at age 6. The grandson of Anglican missionaries, he grew up in Kenya when it was still a British colony, and immediately became a citizen when the country became independent in 1963. He joined his father as an assistant at the National Museums of Kenya’s Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology and became director of NMK in 1968. Working on one of Louis Leakey’s expeditions, Richard Leakey and his team helped find important skulls of early Homo sapiens in Omo, Ethiopia.
Leakey then initiated fossil-hunting expeditions of his own, notably at a site called Koobi Fora, on Lake Turkana in Kenya. Instead of relying on his parents’ connections, Leakey staffed his expedition with young scientists—Alan Walker, Kay Behrensmeyer, Bernard Wood—who would go on to brilliant careers. In 1969, the team “hit the jackpot,” as Leakey put it, discovering the nearly complete skull of an early human ancestor, Australopithecus boisei. The find helped support the then-contentious notion that more than one type of hominin had lived side by side more than 1 million years ago. A second major find, the nearly complete skull of a larger brained hominid, long known simply by its field number “1470” and now classified as H. rudolfensis, bolstered that point. And in 1984, Leakey’s team member Kamoya Kimeu discovered “Nariokotome Boy,” a nearly complete skull and skeleton of H. erectus. These and other fossils fueled insights and controversies in human evolution for decades.
The discoveries brought Leakey personal fame (a cover of Time), which he used to help turn Kenya into a powerhouse of science in East Africa. In the late 1960s, fossils were stored in stacks of small cardboard and cigar boxes in an antiquated building lit by a single light bulb. A master fundraiser, Leakey raised money for a proper research museum and Institute of African Prehistory. Despite his father’s opposition, he asked the Kenyan government to revise the country’s Antiquities Law so foreigners had to apply for permits to search for fossils and study them in Kenya rather than transporting them overseas. “He created a model for other African countries to follow,” Ward says.
In 1989, Leakey became director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) at the request of then-President Daniel arap Moi. With international aid, he rebuilt and equipped KWS’s ranger force and actively supported a ban against international trade in ivory, focusing world attention on the issue by having Moi torch a tower of tusks. Kenya’s elephant numbers rose for the first time in more than 100 years. Shifting political winds and unproven allegations of misspent funds led to Leakey’s resignation in 1994.
In 1994, Leakey co-founded Wildlife Direct, an online nongovernmental organization that raises funds for the staff of African parks and reserves. “Richard could be brusque and impatient and didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he would move heaven and earth to help those he saw as having the potential to make a difference,” says elephant researcher Joyce Poole, co-director of the nonprofit ElephantVoices and a former researcher at KWS. “His conservation legacy can be seen in the great cadre of Kenyan conservationists whose strong voices can be heard loud and clear across the globe.”
Leakey helped launch one of Kenya’s first political parties in 1991, Safina, designed to pull together the country’s fractured opposition. He also served as a member of its parliament and head of the country’s Public Service, but he fell out of favor with Moi and resigned. He co-authored hundreds of research articles and several books, including the bestsellers Origins, People of the Lake: Mankind and Its Beginnings, and The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. He also financially supported hundreds of Kenyan students. Lawrence Nzuve, now the communications coordinator at the Stockholm Environment Institute, says Leakey—recognizing that “science journalism was also important”—gave him a fellowship to study at Stony Brook.
Beginning in his early 20s, Leakey suffered from severe health issues. He survived two kidney transplants, a liver transplant, and a 1993 plane crash that led to the amputation of his legs below the knee. He never lost his love for fossils, and although after the crash he was no longer able to hunt for them himself, he continued to raise funds for the field and for students. His second wife and scientific partner for decades, Meave Leakey, directed their fossil research until recently.
Leakey, who often attributed his passion for helping others to his “missionary genes,” once told a reporter that he hoped his epitaph would read: “I hope I was useful.” The cause of his death has not been released.
Virginia Morell is the author of Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings, a biography of the Leakey family.