Richard Leakey Biography

Richard Leakey, a member of the renowned Leakey paleoanthropology research family of Kenya, has dedicated over fifty years to defending wildlife, independent thought, and conservation. Despite facing severe health issues, he has pursued careers in politics and the enforcement of wildlife protection laws. Born in Nairobi, Leakey’s active youth was filled with adventures in the African backcountry. He early on advocated for racial equality, enduring persecution in the colonial atmosphere of Kenya at the time. With his background in wildlife handling, he developed skills as an airplane pilot and became a photographic safari leader, bone identifier, and general outdoorsman. Although initially resistant to joining the family paleoanthropology field, his affinity for fossil work eventually led him to work alongside his father. Later, he headed multinational teams of anthropologists in Ethiopia and Kenya, making significant discoveries of early mankind fossils. Leakey’s interests shifted towards conservation as he fearlessly enforced elephant protection laws, employing bold strategies against ivory poachers. In the political sphere, he founded Kenya’s ‘Safina Party’, which advocates for liberalism, social justice, and green politics. Currently, Leakey shares his knowledge and passion for anthropology as a professor at Stony Brook University in New York.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Richard Erskine Frere Leakey
  • Died At Age: 77
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Meave Leakey
    • Father: Louis Leakey
    • Mother: Mary Leakey
    • Siblings: Jonathan Leakey, Philip Leakey
  • Occupation:
    • Anthropologists
    • Paleontologists
  • Died on: January 2, 2022
  • Ancestry: Kenyan American
  • City: Nairobi, Kenya
  • Founder/Co-Founder: WildlifeDirect, Safina
  • Awards: Patron’s Gold Medal

Childhood & Early Life

Richard Leakey was born on 19 December 1944 in Kenya. His early years were shaped by the post-World War Two era, which provided him with opportunities for independent wildlife study but also exposed him to racial inequality. At the age of six, Leakey and his brothers captured small herbivores and defended their kills from lions and hyenas, attempting to live like primitive human boys. In 1956, he suffered a fractured skull while horse riding and pleaded with his father not to divorce his mother, successfully keeping his family together for several years. However, his peers at school taunted and physically abused him for speaking out in support of racial equality.

Career

Leakey began living independently at the age of sixteen and quit school to start a business identifying bones. He later led photographic safaris and embarked on expeditions to search for fossils near Lake Natron, which marked the beginning of his paleontology career. In 1964, he and his associate Kamoya Kimeu discovered the fossil of Australopithecus boisei, an early man who lived in the area during the Pleistocene Era. Leakey went on to make multiple discoveries during expeditions in Ethiopia’s Omo River district from 1972 to 1978, including skulls of Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus. In 1984, he discovered Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton from the early Pleistocene. Leakey also embraced conservation and was appointed head of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department in 1989. He implemented anti-poaching units and burned twelve tons of poached ivory in Nairobi National Park. However, he resigned from the conservation group in 1994 amid accusations of corruption and turned his efforts towards Kenyan politics.

Personal Life & Legacy

Leakey was married to Margaret Cropper in 1965 and they had a daughter named Anna. He later married Meave Epps in 1970 and had two daughters, Louise and Samira. Louise followed in her father’s footsteps and works in paleoanthropology. In terms of recognition, Leakey received the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society in 1994 and was elected a fellow in the Royal Society in London in 2007. He also received the Isaac Asimov Science Award from the American Humanist Association in 2013. In popular culture, Angelina Jolie revealed plans to film Leakey’s story, with Brad Pitt set to portray him.

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