Tuesday, January 25

Kenyan Richard Leakey, fossil hunter and elephant defender, dies

Charismatic Kenyan fossil hunter, conservationist and politician Richard Leakey has died at the age of 77, the President of Kenya announced on Sunday.

He had played a fundamental role in understanding the origins of Humanity and had given a boost to the fight against elephant poachers. The causes of his death have not been disclosed, but his health has been very fragile in recent years.

“This afternoon I learned with deep sadness the news of the passing of Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, the former Kenya Public Service chief,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement.

The son of Louis and Mary Leakey, two of the most famous discoverers of hominid skeletons, Richard, born in Kenya on December 19, 1944, was apparently destined for paleoanthropology. A destiny that he tries to escape in his young years, working as a safari guide.

However, he followed in his parents’ footsteps when he obtained a 23-year-old, without academic training, a National Geographic Society scholarship for archaeological research on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, the first of a year. long list of excavations in this inhospitable semi-desert region.

In the 1970s, he led several expeditions crowned with major and unprecedented discoveries, including the first skulls of Homo habilis (1.9 million years old) in 1972 and Homo erectus (1.6 million years old) in 1975.

– The “Turkana Boy” –

His notoriety was established: Time magazine devoted his front page to him, then in 1981, the BBC published a documentary in seven episodes, of which he was the narrator and presenter, on the evolution of humanity.

But his most important discovery comes in 1984: he unearths an almost complete skeleton of Homo erectus which will be baptized the “Boy of Turkana”.

Mr. Leakey never graduated from any degree, but was awarded several honorary doctorates during his distinguished career, and was appointed professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York.

He also founded the Turkana Basin Institute, which supports African scientists and coordinates excavations in the region, and the Wildlife Direct platform, which raises awareness about the protection of wildlife.

– Ivory in flames –

In the 1980s, when the massacre of African elephants grew exponentially, fueled by the demand for ivory, Richard Leakey asserted himself as one of the leading figures in the war against the trafficking of pachyderm tusks.

In 1989, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi placed him as head of the National Wildlife Protection Agency, later renamed Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

The same year, he organized an unprecedented communication operation by burning, in front of cameras around the world, 12 tons of seized ivory, with the message that elephant tusks have no value as such.

It is also without batting an eyelid that it strengthens the protection of the elephants by heavily arming the KWS rangers, now assisted by spotting helicopters and authorized by President Moi to “shoot to kill”.

In 1993, the small Cessna plane carrying him crashed in the Rift Valley. He survives but loses both legs.

– “I chose to continue living” –

“At the time, there were regular threats against me and I lived with armed guards, but I made the decision not to dramatize and not to tell me + they tried to kill me +”, says- he in 2015 at the Financial Times. “I chose to continue living”.

He was forced to leave the KWS a year later and entered politics by joining the many critical voices of the corrupt regime of autocrat Moi. His career as an opponent was short-lived and Daniel arap Moi convinced him in 1998 to lead the fight against corruption. The task turns out to be impossible and he throws in the towel two years later.

In 2015, faced with a new poaching crisis, another president, Uhuru Kenyatta, called on him to take over the reins of KWS, this time as chairman of the board, a position he would hold until 2018.

Cancer had ravaged his skin, his disheveled hair testified to the weight of the years, he had also suffered from repeated liver and kidney disease. But at over 70, he was still producing his wine on a farm in the Rift Valley.


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