Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, FRS
Paleontologist, conservationist, politician and institution builder.
Richard Leakey lived many lives in one, and confronted death many times too. He had near-limitless imagination of what could exist, a complete absence of fear in making things happen, and utter disregard for convention. This charismatic combination proved time and again to be a powerful magnet for drawing people from many walks of life to his audacious plans. He was a visionary leader of extraordinary integrity who fearlessly demolished obstacles and achieved things against the odds. Above all, Richard Leakey embraced life – good and bad, and imbued those around him with the sheer excitement of what could be done, discovered, resolved and enjoyed.
Richard's parents, Louis and Mary, were pioneers and giants in their fields of African paleontology and archaeology. Richard grew up amidst fossils, excavations, remote places, museum collections, and wildlife. Richard made his first major hominin discovery in 1964 at Lake Natron in Tanzania– a mandible of Paranthropus boisei that matched the famous OH5 skull found by his mother at Olduvai Gorge. In 1967, at his father’s request, Richard led a Kenyan-French-American expedition to the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia. At the site of Kibish in the Omo, Richard found fossils of Homo sapiens, which he famously recalled his parents being totally unimpressed with. We now know the Kibish sapiens to be 230,000 years old, and they are the earliest fossils of our species, and one of the evidentiary pillars of our African origins. It was during this expedition that Richard saw the Koobi Fora exposures for the first time, and recognized their huge potential. Since 1968, Koobi Fora has proved to be one of the richest and diverse hominin fossil localities in the world.
Following the life-saving gift of a kidney, donated by his brother Philip in 1980, Richard grew increasingly concerned with climate change and the plight of wildlife. In 1989 President Daniel arap Moi asked him to take on Kenya’s Wildlife department and turn around the poaching. In short order, Richard declared war on poachers, burnt all the confiscated stockpile of Kenyan ivory, and massively reduced elephant deaths, creating a new and more autonomous Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to oversee Kenya’s wildlife and national parks.
Richard’s experience at KWS strengthened his belief that strong institutions require democracy and transparency in governance. In 1995 Richard resigned from KWS to co-found an opposition political party called Safina. This move was not welcomed by the authorities, and his time as a political activist was tense, marked by protests that were forcefully suppressed by the authorities. As the result of pressure from international financial institutions, in 1998, Moi again asked Richard to direct KWS, and then in 1999 to become Head of the Civil Service—tasking him with changing not just the image, but also the effectiveness of government. For three years Richard devoted all his extraordinary energy to this herculean task, along with his “dream team” of technocrats.