Monday, December 19, 2005

The Indestructible Richard Leakey



"Few people actually like Leakey but almost everyone respects him. He commands spectacular personal loyalty but he picks up enemies like the animals to which he dedicated part of his life pick up ticks; he takes about as much notice of them, too." -- Miles Bredin.

Richard Leakey was born on this day in 1944 in Kenya.

The second son of famous paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, big Richard Leakey characteristically avoided getting into the family business initially, dropping out of high school and starting a safari business before teaching himself to be a pilot.

In 1964 he led an expedition to a fossil site he had seen from the air, but finding that the archaeologists got all the credit for the find, Leakey went to England briefly to study for a degree before his impatience got the better of him and he managed to maneuver himself into the directorship of the National Museum of Kenya at age 24. The directorship provided him with the platform from which to lead paleoanthropological expeditions near Lake Rudolf (Turkana), funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

Despite being diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease, there he supervised the discovery of a Homo habilis skull in 1972 and a Homo erectus skull in 1975. In 1979, his kidney condition having progressed to end-stage renal failure, he received a transplant from his brother Philip (with whom he had not spoken for 20 years) and was back digging after only 8 months. In 1984-5, he found 2 of the most remarkable specimens ever: a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus boy, and the first-ever skull of the species Australopithecus aethiopicus.

From 1989 to 1994, he directed the Kenya Wildlife Service, initiating a shoot-to-kill policy against ivory poachers by which he almost single-handedly caused a dramatic reduction in the worldwide ivory trade. A plane crash in 1993 resulted in both of his legs being amputated below the knee, but if anything his profile, influence and public service within Kenya only increased: in 1999, he was appointed head of the Kenya Civil Service, promising to stamp out corruption and attempt to restore Kenya's economic health. He left the Service, embattled as usual, in 2001 -- but observers believe we haven't seen the last of him yet.

His wife Meave continues to hunt for the remains of early hominids (she discovered a new species, Australopithecus anamensis in 1995) and his daughter Louise has also managed her own fossil digs.

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