35 Who Made a Difference: Richard Leakey

The leader of the Hominid Gang asks what he can do for his continent

Richard Leakey
Wikimedia Commons

As a child, Richard Leakey spent many hours—too many, in his opinion—broiling in the sunbaked hills of western Kenya while his famous parents, Louis and Mary, picked away at fossils. "I'm afraid I was a whiny child," he says. After one "I'm tired, I'm bored" lament, his exasperated father shouted, "Go and find your own bone!" The young Leakey did exactly that, of course, and discovered a satisfyingly large jawbone—the beginning of what would be the most complete remains of a certain species of extinct pig then known. Richard Leakey was 6.

"My parents took over the excavation as soon as they saw what I had," he recalls. But he later led numerous fossil-hunting expeditions of his own, pursuing, as had his parents, humankind's most ancient ancestors. And despite his lack of a university education, he and his team of Kenyan fossil hunters (the famed Hominid Gang) hauled in everything from the fossilized remains of 17 million-year-old early apes to a nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton. "I'd spent most of my life groveling in the sediments," Leakey says, "so I had a fairly good idea of how to go about finding these things."

Now 61, Leakey has the weathered look you'd expect of a man who has spent much of his life in the field and the manner of a man used to being in charge. At dinner during a recent visit to San Francisco, he smiled when a waiter apologized for stepping on his foot. "No need," said Leakey. "It's metal."

While piloting his plane on a government mission 12 years ago, he went down in the mountains outside Nairobi; both his legs were subsequently amputated below the knees. The accident surely would have ended his fossil-hunting career, but by then he'd already accepted an appointment from then-president Daniel arap Moi to head Kenya's troubled conservation department. His success at stemming elephant poaching, he believes, may have led someone to sabotage his plane.

But Leakey's crash failed to dampen his determination. He had, after all, already survived a terminal kidney disease he'd contracted in his early 20s. "I had two legs in the grave, but I wasn't dead," he says. By the time of his accident, he had put in nearly 30 years as a civil servant and director of the National Museums of Kenya, and he had become increasingly appalled by corruption in Moi's regime. After forming a new political party, Leakey was appointed a member of Parliament; then he forged alliances to rewrite Kenya's constitution and worked to introduce legislation concerning rights for the disabled.

In 1999, Moi asked Leakey to return to his inner circle as his permanent secretary and head of the Public Service, which oversees government workers. Hoping to persuade Moi to clean up his government, Leakey agreed and succeeded enough for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to restore financial aid to Kenya. But recognizing the limits of public office, Leakey stepped down in 2001.

"I'm still waiting for the perfect job," he says with a smile.

His late mother credited "the missionary spirit" for his drive—the same trait that compelled Richard's grandparents to move to Kenya from England as missionaries in the early 1900s. "Richard inherited those genes, I think, that need to inspire," she once told me. In his spare time, Leakey has worked on behalf of Kenya's kidney patients and, with his wife, the paleontologist Meave Leakey, helped finance the education of numerous Kenyan graduate students.

When I met up with him, Leakey was passing through California after giving a speech about global warming and was headed back to Nairobi to meet with former president Bill Clinton on AIDS treatments. He is planning a Web-based foundation to assist Africa's ailing national parks, and he's started to raise funds to build a private hominid research institution in Kenya.

"I'm still keenly interested in what makes us human," he says. "I'd like to know when and how humans first left Africa and what events—cultural and physiological—made us into modern humans." His home, vineyard and family remain in Africa—as does his heart. "I'm deeply motivated to make the African continent work, to give back to Africa, since so much has been taken from it," Leakey says.

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