Richard Leakey, Who Found ‘Turkana Boy’ Fossil, Dies at 77
(Bloomberg) -- Richard Leakey, a Kenyan conservationist and paleontologist whose discoveries of fossils including “Turkana Boy” helped transform views on human evolution and its roots in Africa, has died. He was 77.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the death and expressed condolences in a statement on Sunday, praising Leakey’s decades of public service roles as well. No details about the death were given.
WildlifeDirect, a conservation group Leakey started in 2004, said in a statement that he “was a mentor to dozens of Africans in diverse fields and had played a key role in shaping the world’s view on Africa’s place in the human evolution story, on the development of multi-party democracy in Kenya, and on influencing climate change dialogue.”
Leakey’s death was announced hours after that of Charles Njonjo, a longtime friend and Kenya’s first post-independence attorney general. Njonjo was 101. Kenyatta credited the two men with helping lay the foundation for the nation.
Leakey was born on Dec. 19, 1944, one of three sons of Louis and Mary Leakey, themselves renowned paleontologists. He participated in his parent’s field expeditions as a young boy, according to the Turkana Basin Institute. He took an early interest in tracking living animals and ran a business escorting tourists on trips to photograph wildlife, according to the website of Washington-based Academy of Achievement.
Partly self-taught, Leakey secured funding from the National Geographic Society to excavate artifact-rich Lake Turkana, the area in which a research team he led later found “Turkana Boy.” The 1.5-million-year-old fossil is one of the most complete early human skeletons, according to the Academy of Achievement.
At 25, Leakey was named director of the National Museums of Kenya where he built up the research department. Shortly after his appointment, Leakey was diagnosed with terminal kidney disease and was told by doctors he had about 10 more years to live, according to the academy. He recovered after getting a transplant from his brother, it said.
After serving nearly two decades at the state museums agency, Leakey was appointed head of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989 where he spearheaded efforts to combat illegal poaching of rhino horn and elephant tusk, which was a growing threat to the animals. He armed anti-poaching officials, sanctioned the shooting of poachers in situations where all other measures had failed and burned 12 metric tons of ivory seized by authorities in a public demonstration that poaching would no longer be tolerated.
Leakey won the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal in 1994 -- 32 years after his parents -- “for protecting the earth’s wildlife and illuminating the origins of humanity.”
A year earlier he lost both his legs below the knee when the plane he was flying crashed. He then left the wildlife service to enter Kenyan politics, serving as secretary-general of the opposition Safina party, and was elected to represent the party as a lawmaker in parliament.
In 1999, then-President Daniel Arap Moi appointed Leakey as head of the civil service in a bid to tackle corruption and restore the reputation of the public service. He stepped down in 2001, retiring from political life. He then served as spokesman for Transparency International and the United Nations Great Apes Survival Project, according to the academy.
In later years, Leakey produced wine on his farm near Nairobi and wrote books including “Origins Reconsidered.”
He also served as chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute, a privately funded non-profit organization he founded with Stony Brook University in 2005, which supports researchers working around Lake Turkana.
Leakey married twice and had three daughters.
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