Can the wildlife of East Africa be saved? A visit with Richard Leakey

Feb 22, 2020 | News

By Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

The week before Christmas, Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist, celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. He is lucky to have reached the milestone. A tall man with the burned and scarred skin that results from a life lived outdoors, Leakey has survived two kidney transplants, one liver transplant, and a devastating airplane crash that cost him both of his legs below the knee. For the past quarter century, he has moved around on prosthetic limbs concealed beneath his trousers. 
In his home town of Nairobi, Leakey keeps an office in an unlikely sort of place—the annex building of a suburban shopping mall. His desk and chair fill most of his cubicle, which has a window that looks onto a parking lot. The space has no adornments other than two framed photographs, each sharply symbolic of the parallel interests that have absorbed most of his adult life: the world of extinct prehistoric hominids and the contemporary natural environment that is being pushed toward extinction by humankind.

In one of the photographs, Leakey is three decades younger, a trim man wearing a dark suit and standing amid a group of senior Kenyan officials, including then President Daniel arap Moi, who are gathered next to a pile of elephant tusks. It is a snapshot from 1989, when, as the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Leakey oversaw the public burning of several tons of poached elephant ivory. 
At the end of the nineteen-seventies, there were an estimated quarter of a million elephants in Kenya, but, when the photograph was taken, only sixteen thousand were left. Leakey wanted to stigmatize the ivory trade by treating poached tusks in the same way that police treated cocaine seized from drug traffickers. His publicity-seeking gambit worked, making global headlines and leading the way for an international ivory ban that went into effect that same year. The killing of elephants went down for a while as well, allowing Kenya’s herds to recover. Today, Kenya has a relatively stable population of about thirty-five thousand elephants.

The other photograph shows a high ridgetop overlooking a sweeping valley. On the edge of the ridge, two contiguous white stone structures rise, daggerlike, into the enveloping sky. This is Daniel Libeskind’s artistic rendition of Leakey’s proposed Ngaren: The Museum of Humankind, to be built on a piece of land Leakey owns that overlooks the Great Rift Valley, an hour or so outside Nairobi. When the museum building is completed, at an expected cost of more than a hundred million dollars, the idea is that it will be a testament to Kenya’s central role in human evolution and also, inevitably, a somewhat Pharaonic monument to Leakey’s long and multifarious career, which, like almost everything about him, has been complicated and larger than life.

In the sixties, when Leakey was still in his twenties and following in the footsteps of his famous paleoanthropologist parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, he began directing expeditions in northern Kenya and later on made breakthrough discoveries of his own, with previously unknown hominid species. Leakey’s achievements saw him placed on the cover of Time magazine, in 1977, and he has rarely been out of the news since, especially in Kenya. Leakey became involved in Kenyan politics, including his early stint at the Kenya Wildlife Service, which ended with his plane crash (which he believes was an assassination attempt). 
He also founded an opposition political party, served in parliament, and was put in charge of the Kenyan civil service, where, as part of an anti-corruption drive, he ordered the dismissal of tens of thousands of public employees. (His zeal soon cost him his job, however, when President Moi, who had hired him for the job, summarily fired him. (Moi, who was Kenya’s President from 1978 to 2002, died on February 4th, in Nairobi, at the age of ninety-five.) In 2015, Leakey agreed to return to the Kenya Wildlife Service as its chairman of the board, appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Even in semi-retirement, Leakey has remained typically hyperactive, co-founding a new conservation charity, WildlifeDirect, and, in partnership with Long Island’s Stony Brook University, setting up the Turkana Basin Initiative, a research foundation focussed on continuing the Leakey family’s field work in East Africa. In a meeting we had one bright Nairobi morning a few months ago, Leakey lived up to his reputation for blunt outspokenness. I had gone to ask him about the prospects for East Africa’s wildlife. 
During the past half century, many animal species have been devastated because of civil wars, unrestricted poaching, surging human population growth, and habitat encroachment. Even so, it has been the hope of many conservationists, and also concerned governments, that an international network of breeding zoos, national parks, and private conservancies will ultimately save the most endangered species. Leakey had been at the forefront of such efforts in Kenya, of course, but I’d heard that he had become increasingly pessimistic. I wanted to know why.

Before our meeting, I had spent several weeks visiting wildlife reserves and private conservancies in Kenya and Tanzania. The critically endangered black rhino population had stabilized and even increased slightly, thanks to protective security fences and armed guards. So had the elephant populations, despite ongoing poaching, thanks in part to Leakey’s work, which had resulted in a more professional, proactive, and less corrupt Kenya Wildlife Service. But the populations of lions, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, and other once abundant species had all plummeted in recent years because of shrinking habitats and the increasing use of industrial pesticides. 
Poaching was only part of a much larger problem of long-term sustainability—the result of an ever-expanding human population, chronic water shortages, and spreading desertification, triggered by prolonged drought and compounded by overgrazing from cattle herders. Michael Dyer, Richard Bonham, Tony Fitzjohn, and other conservationists I met acknowledged privately that, beyond their individual successes in helping to keep certain species alive (thanks to a complex combination of efforts that included land-use arrangements with local communities, income from high-spending Western visitors, and international donation drives), the future was highly uncertain.

When I asked Leakey for his thoughts about the future of Kenya’s wildlife, he was uncompromisingly bleak, predicting that most of the animals are unlikely to survive far beyond the middle of the century. The next thirty to fifty years would be decisive. “Over all, I’m in a very pessimistic short- to mid-term attitude,” he said. “While I applaud the good efforts being made to get microcosm survival and improvement, I am not persuaded of the prospects for wildlife unless something gives, and I don’t see it.”

For Leakey, it all comes down to global climate change: “Our population is growing too fast; our resource base isn’t growing with it, and, with the crisis of climate change, whether you have a capital ‘C’ or not, the fact is that the mean temperature is getting warmer, the rainfall is getting less, the snowmelt is increasing, the ice formation is less, oceans are rising. It’s a strangulation grip on the environment, and there’s nothing Kenya can do to arrest climate change globally,” he said. 
“So if you take the change in climate and you take the impact of temperature and the unavailability of land to grow viable crops on, your animal husbandry is getting squeezed out because there isn’t the open-range land on which you can raise cattle which you can sell in markets, so there’s a narrowing down of the options for humanity, and how you fit people and animals into that has to be a big question mark.”

Leakey was courteous but dismissive about the efforts of the conservationists: “The fact is that the problems we all face now are far beyond the power of individual conservationists to cope with. They can help stem the disappearance of certain species, and to hold what’s there, but it’s tough when you’ve got national parks”—Leakey named Meru, a Kenyan park that is partially fenced off— “where there used to be [fourteen] rivers running through, draining off Mt. Kenya, but now [almost] all the ice is gone from Mt. Kenya, and the springs are drying up, and there are now [four] rivers running through, and in a couple of years there won’t be any. What will the animals inside drink? They can smell water and can break out of the electrical fences, or they die.”

Leakey apologized for his bleak assessment. “I am sorry to be depressing, but you asked me to speak honestly.” I observed that his words carried the unwelcome ring of truth, and Leakey added, “I could be more of a curmudgeon and go and live on my farm, but . . . ” He didn’t finish his sentence and threw up his hands in a futile gesture. 
“As I said, my time frame is only fifty years to look for some really positive change. I think the potential’s there. I don’t see the signs that it’s started yet, but I have been an ardent believer that the elephants must live and the rhinos shouldn’t be destroyed and all of that. And I was sincere. And I am quite sure I gave enough attention to the fact that we were swimming against the current, and I even went into politics. It’s sad, you know. . . .” Leakey’s voice trailed off again. For an instant, he looked despondent.

“So,” I asked, “what can be done?”

“It is possible to cut carbon dioxide,” Leakey said. “It may not be possible to recover the environment sufficiently for wildlife in the next thirty or forty years, but, you know, the planet has been here for three and a half, four billion years; life has been on the planet for six hundred million years, humans have been living on the planet—bipedal creatures—for six million years, and we’ve been a technological species for four million years. So can’t we get through the next few hundred years and put our vision to restoring the planet?

“I think you could probably sustain enough biodiversity and genetic material to bring back the ecosystems with the range of species that once lived there, but you can’t do it unless you recognize that for a while you may go through some very bleak times,” Leakey said. “I think saving species from disappearing completely by using artificial means of storing and sustaining viable breeding populations, running parallel to trying to give humans a better chance to come off the land and do something else that is less destructive. So, in the longer term, say, in a timescale of several hundred years, I can be very optimistic.”

Leakey became more enthusiastic when I asked him about his museum project, Ngaren. “It’s coming; it’s going to happen,” he said, although he confessed that he had yet to raise most of the funds and that doing so remained an uphill battle. In the heartland of private philanthropy, the United States, where he had always been successful in fund-raising, he had been running into unexpected new challenges. “I’ve been getting told, ‘Climate change? Are you sure you want to imply that climate change is causing extinction?’” Leakey’s eyes widened theatrically. “In response, I’ve said, ‘Well, actually, it’s causing evolution, but not ours.’” He laughed mirthlessly and said that some potential donors had suggested that he “compromise on the importance of controlling carbon,” and still others wanted him to “downplay” his “certainty” that Africa was somehow the cradle of humankind. He shook his head.

“People are very protective of their freedom to think as they see fit,” he said. “And so, I think what I am going to do, particularly given this current American Administration, is [to look more] to Europe. There are a number of European countries with heritage funds where I think I can raise quite a bit of money.” With that in mind, he was considering the possibility of expanding his museum beyond evolution, to include room for the arts, and for science, along with a think tank with residential facilities to provide “a place where Africans can meet and sit at the high table with soft power.” “I’d like to pull it off before the Grim Reaper catches me, who’s been lurking around here for a long time,” Leakey said, then he laughed and rapped the desk in front of him with one of his big hands.