Richard Leakey

Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and politician

Richard Leakey (19 December 1944 – 2 January 2022) was a Kenyan politician, paleoanthropologist and conservationist. He was second of the three sons of the anthropologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey. In 2007, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Richard Leakey
Leakey in 1986
Born(1944-12-19)19 December 1944
Died2 January 2022(2022-01-02) (aged 77)
Nairobi, Kenya
Scientific career

Early life


A high school dropout, Leakey discovered his love of paleontology when he led an expedition to a fossil site he had discovered while flying. Frustrated by the lack of recognition he received for his accomplishments (due to his lack of qualifications), Leakey left for England to catch up on his education. However, after six months, Leakey returned home to continue his safaris. He never completed his degree.

In 1965 he married Margaret Cropper. Their daughter Anna was born in 1969, the same year that Richard and Margaret divorced. He then married his colleague Meave Epps in 1970. They had two daughters, Louise (born 1972) and Samira (1974).[1]

Leakey was diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease in 1969. Ten years later he became seriously ill, but received a kidney transplant from his brother Philip and recovered to full health.[1]

In 1993, a small propeller-driven plane piloted by Richard Leakey crashed, crushing his lower legs. Both legs were later amputated. Sabotage was suspected but never proved. In a few months Richard Leakey was walking again on artificial limbs.

Leakey said in his autobiography that he was an atheist.[2]

Teenage entrepreneur


Richard chose to support himself. He borrowed 500 pounds from his parents for a Land Rover, and went into the trapping and skeleton supply business with Kamoya Kimeu.

Richard was already a skilled horseman, outdoorsman, Land Rover mechanic, archaeologist and expedition leader. He learned to identify bones. All these skills pointed to a path he did not yet wish to take, simply because his father was on it.[3]

The bone business turned into a safari business in 1961. In 1962 he got a private airplane pilot licence and took tours to Olduvai. It was from a casual aerial survey that he noted the potential of Lake Natron's shores for paleontology. He went looking for fossils in a Land Rover, but could find none, until his parents assigned Glynn Isaac to go with him.

Louis was so impressed with their finds that he gave them National Geographic money for a month's expedition.[4]chapter 18 They explored in the vicinity of Peninj near the lake, where Richard was in charge of the administrative details. Bored, he returned to Nairobi temporarily, but at that moment, Kamoya Kimeu discovered a fossil of Australopithecus boisei. A second expedition left Richard feeling that he was being excluded from the most significant part of the operation, the scientific analysis.

Expeditions led by Richard Leakey

Leakey in 2010

Koobi Fora


During the Omo expedition of 1967, Richard visited Nairobi and on the return flight the pilot flew over Lake Rudolph (now Lake Turkana) to avoid a thunderstorm. The map led Richard to expect volcanic rock below him but he saw sediments. Visiting the region by helicopter, he saw tools and fossils everywhere. In his mind, he was already planning a new enterprise.

In 1969 the discovery of a cranium of Paranthropus boisei caused great excitement. A Homo habilis skull and a Homo erectus skull, discovered in 1972 and 1975, respectively, were among the most significant finds of Leakey's earlier expeditions. In 1978 an intact cranium of Homo erectus was discovered.

Leakey and Donald Johanson were at the time considered to be the most famous palaeoanthoropologists, and scientifically their views on human evolution were differing, a scientific rivalry that gained public attention. This culminated at the Cronkite's Universe talk show hosted by Walter Cronkite in New York in 1981, where Leakey and Johanson held a fierce debate on live TV show.[5]

West Turkana


Turkana Boy — discovered by Kamoya Kimeu, a member of the Leakeys' team in 1984 — was the nearly complete skeleton of a Homo ergaster (though some, including Leakey, call it erectus) who died 1.6 million years ago at about age 9-12.

Leakey and Roger Lewin describe the experience of this find and their interpretation of it, in their book Origins reconsidered (1992). Shortly after the discovery of Turkana Boy, Leakey and his team made the discovery of a skull (known as 'Black Skull') of a new species, Australopithecus aethiopicus (or Paranthropus aethiopicus).

Richard shifted away from paleontology in 1989, but his wife Meave Leakey and daughter Louise Leakey still continue paleontological research in Northern Kenya.


Leakey in 2015

In 1989 Richard Leakey was appointed the head of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD) by President Daniel Arap Moi in response to the international outcry over the poaching of elephants and the impact it was having on the wildlife of Kenya.

The department was replaced by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 1990, and Leakey became its first chairman. With characteristically bold steps Leakey created special, well-armed anti-poaching units that were authorized to shoot poachers on sight. The poaching menace was dramatically reduced. Impressed by Leakey's transformation of the KWS, the World Bank approved grants worth $140 million. Richard Leakey, President Arap Moi and the WMCD made the international news headlines when a stockpile of 12 tons of ivory was burned in 1989 in Nairobi National Park.

Richard Leakey wrote about his experiences at the KWS in his book Wildlife Wars: my battle to save Kenya's elephants (2001).



In May 1995 Richard Leakey joined a group of Kenyan intellectuals in launching a new political party — the Safina Party, which in Swahili means "Noah's Ark".

"If KANU and Mr. Moi will do something about the deterioration of public life, corruption and mismanagement, I'd be happy to fight alongside them. If they won't, I want somebody else to do it," announced Richard Leakey. The Safina party was routinely harassed and even its application to become an official political party was not approved until 1997.

In 1999, Moi appointed Richard Leakey as Cabinet Secretary and overall head of the civil service. Moi's hand was forced: the international donor institutions insisted as a pre-condition for the resumption of donor funds. Leakey's second stint in the civil service lasted until 2001 when he was forced to resign again.

Later activities


Leakey joined the Department of Anthropology faculty at Stony Brook University, New York in 2002.[6] He is currently a Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook, where he is Chair of the Turkana Basin Institute.

In 2004, Richard Leakey founded and chaired WildlifeDirect, a Kenya-based charitable organization. The charity was established to provide support to conservationists in Africa directly on the ground via the use of blogs. This enables individuals anywhere to play a direct and interactive role in the survival of some of the world’s most precious species. The organization played a significant role in the saving of Congo's mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in January 2007 after a rebel uprising threatened to eliminate the highly vulnerable population.

In April 2007 he was appointed interim chairman of Transparency International, Kenya branch.[7]

Leakey died on 2 January 2022 at his home near Nairobi at the age of 77.[8]

Family tree

Frida Avern
Louis Leakey
Mary Nicol
Colin Leakey
Meave Epps
Richard Leakey
Margaret Cropper
Jonathan Leakey
Philip Leakey
Louise Leakey
Emmanuel de Merode


  1. 1.0 1.1 Talk Origins - Richard Leakey
  2. Leakey, Richard 1983. One life: an autobiography. p38
  3. Richard E. Leakey 1981. The making of Mankind. Chapter 1: He says he wished to be "free of my parents' world", a sentiment both Louis and Mary must have understood very well, even though they opposed this freedom.
  4. Morell, Virginia 1995. Ancestral passions: Leakey family and the quest for humankind's beginning. Simon & Schuster N.Y. ISBN 0684824701
  5. Roger Lewin: Bones of Contention University of Chicago Press, 1997. ISBN 0-226-47651-0
  6. Stony Brook University, Press release, Mar 27, 2007: World-renowned Anthropologist Richard Leakey to be honored at Stony Brook University's 50th Anniversary Gala April 11 Archived 2010-06-08 at the Wayback Machine
  7. The Standard, April 4, 2007: Leakey takes over at TI[permanent dead link]
  8. "Message of Condolence from H.E Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta following the death of former Head of Public Service Dr Richard Leakey". Archived from the original on 2022-01-02. Retrieved 2022-01-02.