CM – Richard Leakey, fossil hunter and defender of elephants, dies at the age of 77

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January 3, 2022

World-renowned Kenyan conservationist and fossil hunter Richard Leakey, whose groundbreaking discoveries helped prove that humanity evolved in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 77, the country’s president said.

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The legendary paleoanthropologist remained full of energy until his 1970s despite suffering from skin cancer, kidney and liver diseases.

« I received the sad news of the death of Dr. Richard Erskine Frere Leakey this afternoon … with deep sadness, » said President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement late Sunday.

Born December 1944, he was the middle son of Louis and Mary Leakey, perhaps the most famous discoverers of the ancestral hominids in the world, destined for paleoanthropology – the study of human fossils.

Initially, Leakey tried his hand at safari guides, but the Things changed when, at the age of 23, he received a National Geographic Society research grant to dig on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, despite having no formal archaeological training.

In the 1970s he led expeditions that advanced the scientific understanding of human evolution with the discovery of the skulls of Homo habilis (1.9 million years old) in 1972 and Homo erectus (1.6 million years old) recalibrated in 1975.

A TIME magazine cover followed, on which Leakey posed with a Homo habilis mock-up under the heading « How Man Became Man ». His fame continued to grow in 1981 when he hosted The Making of Mankind, a seven-part BBC television series.

The most famous fossil find was yet to come: the discovery of an extraordinary, almost complete Homo erectus skeleton at one of his excavations in 1984, nicknamed the Turkana Boy.

As the slaughter of African elephants in the late In the 1980s, driven by the insatiable demand for ivory, Leakey became one of the world’s leading voices against the then legal global ivory trade.

In 1989, President Daniel Arap appointed Moi Leakey to head the National Wildlife Agency, the soon to be called Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

That year he pioneered a spectacular publicity stunt by burning an ivory pyre and setting fire to 12 tons of tusks to make it clear they weren’t Worth if they were removed once elephants.

He kept his nerve even without apology when he fired a gun ehl carried out against armed poachers.

In 1993 his little Cessna crashed in the Rift Valley, where he made a name for himself. He survived but lost both legs.

« I was threatened regularly at the time and I lived with armed guards. But I decided not to become a playwright and said, ‘They tried to kill me.’ I’ve decided to get on with life, « he told the Financial Times.

Leakey was pushed out of KWS a year later and began a third career as a prominent opposition politician. He joined the chorus of voices against Moi’s corrupt regime.

However, his political career was less successful, and in 1998 he was appointed head of the Kenyan civil service by Moi, taking responsibility for combating official corruption. </ When another elephant poaching crisis hit Africa in 2015, President Kenyatta asked Leakey to take the helm of KWS again, this time as Chairman of the Board, a position he would hold for three years.

Vice President William Ruto said Leakey I « fought courageously for a better country » and inspired Kenyans with his zeal for public service.

Leakey spoke softly and apparently devoid of personal vanity, Leakey stubbornly refused to give in to health problems.

« Richard was a very good friend and a truly loyal Kenyan. May he rest in peace, ”wrote Paula Kahumbu, director of Wildlife Direct, a conservation group founded by Leakey, on Twitter.

© 2022 AFP

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