Richard Leakey: Kenyan conservationist dies aged 77

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Paleontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey in front of a haul of burning ivoryImage source, Getty Images
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Richard Leakey led a high-profile campaign against ivory poaching

Richard Leakey, a world-renowned Kenyan conservationist and fossil hunter has died aged 77.

His groundbreaking work contributed to the recognition of Africa as the birthplace of humankind.

He also spearheaded campaigns to stop poaching in Kenya, famously burning the country's stockpile of poached ivory.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Leakey had "served our country with distinction".

Leakey served in various positions in the Kenyan government including the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service and as head of the civil service.

"Besides his distinguished career in public service, Dr Leakey is celebrated for his prominent role in Kenya's civil society where he founded and successfully ran a number of institutions," Mr Kenyatta said.

Leakey followed in his parents' footsteps in paleoanthropology - the practice of seeking to understand human evolution by studying fossils and ancient tools.

In his 20s, Leakey made his own important finds, and in two ground-breaking books (Origins and People of the Lake), he explained the emergence of Homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans.

His work contributed to the growing body of evidence that the earliest humans had lived on the African continent.

In 1981, he fronted a seven-part BBC television series called "The Making of Mankind", which made him a household name.

In the late 1980s, he switched careers to take over as head of Kenya's Wildlife Service at a time when poachers were wiping out the country's entire elephant and rhino populations.

He told his rangers to shoot poachers on sight and organised the spectacular public burning of a huge haul of ivory.

In 1993, the small plane he was flying in lost power and crashed. He survived but both of his legs were amputated below the knee.

That did not stop him from entering Kenyan politics, setting up a new political party, Safina. But his political career did not last and in 1998 he took up a role as head of Kenya's civil service, with a mission to fight official corruption.

He lasted three years in the role before returning to the Kenya Wildlife Service.

At the time of his death, he was serving as chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University in the US. The institute works to facilitate research and education in palaeontology and archaeology in northern Kenya.

Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto said Leakey "inspired many Kenyans with his loyalty to his country. He loved Kenya".

The Duke of Cambridge said he was privileged to meet him and praised him for his efforts to tackle elephant poaching. "Conservation has lost a true visionary," Prince William said in a tweet.

From a young age, Richard Leakey was a fiercely independent thinker. His parents' renowned work on archaeology was no doubt a huge influence on his chosen path. But he still found his own voice and made crucial discoveries while barely in his 20s.

He was also a fighter. As a child he sustained a broken skull after falling from a horse. Later in life, he had kidney and liver transplants, battled cancer and survived a plane crash in which he lost both legs. But he remained focused on his causes.

Kenyan politics, however, proved challenging. Leakey was a strong critic of Daniel arap Moi's government. He even founded a political party to oppose it.

But when Moi asked him to head the public service and lead the fight against corruption, he agreed. Foreign funding, which had been frozen due to corruption, began to flow again. But shortly afterwards he was cut off. Outmanoeuvred, Leakey resigned.

But in science and conservation he leaves a lasting mark.

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