Leakey was larger than life; carved his name on hearts, not tombstones

Friday January 14 2022
Richard Leakey.

Conservationist and former Head of Public Service Richard Leakey who died on January 2, 2022. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


I never really had much personal conversations with the great man. To me Richard Erskine Leakey was larger than life. This man who was in my text books in primary and secondary school, and in my course texts in university. Yet here he was, just across my shared office on the seventh floor at Timau Plaza in Nairobi during my days with ecologist and conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu at WildlifeDirect. I could just knock on his door and say good morning.

I was his blogger and interviewed him every week to post on his blog on WildlifeDirect, an online resource he started to connect those on the frontline of wildlife conservation with anyone around the world who cared about wildlife through blogging.

I was so in awe of the man such that I thought discussing personal matters, even asking his advice, would be to waste his precious time. So I just wrote what he said, made it into a story, and posted on his blog.

Every time I sat with him, I was amazed by how he thought. I respect thinkers, and Leakey was the greatest I ever met. I would knock his door, notebook and pen in hand, and inform him that it was time to write another blog. He would invite me to sit and we would discuss about elephant poaching in Africa, devastating krill fishing in Antarctica, destruction of forests in Kenya’s Mathews Range, or bushmeat poaching in Central Africa. Every time, his perspective on these pressing global matters surprised me.

I remember that one time in July 2009, while we were preparing a blog post about the alarming increase in elephant ivory poaching in Africa, he surprised me with how he explained the upsurge. The previous year, in October and November 2008, Namibia and South Africa staged each a CITES-sanctioned one-off auction of ivory stockpiles and Leakey had joined others in condemning this sale. Everyone thought that the upsurge in poaching noticed in 2009 was a direct effect of the southern Africa auction, but Leakey told me it was more complicated than that.

“The upsurge in poaching is not a direct consequence of the auction although it did trigger the growth in demand”, he told me as I frantically jotted down his points for the blog. He was quite eloquent in both thought and speech, and I had to be fully alert when we did this weekly ritual. “


What happened is that the auction made legal ivory available in the market and that was the danger”, he corrected everyone. “The sudden availability of a significant amount of ivory revitalised a market that had disappeared [over time since the 1989 CITES total ban on ivory sales],” he added. “Now, there is no way that legal ivory could satisfy demand in this enlarged market. Illegal ivory, consequently, found a new outlet and soon started fetching better prices at the source.”

There were those who also thought that the influx of Chinese workers in infrastructure construction in Africa had contributed to the upsurge in poaching back then, but Leakey refuted this, saying “The Chinese workers are lowly paid and thus don’t have the large amounts of money required to buy ivory from poachers.”

Many have and will write, talk about and give interviews about Richard Leakey. All of them will say different things about the great man, and they will be right. My friend Ikal Angelei, who I helped blog about the potentially devastating impact of Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam up the Omo River said this of Leakey: “You carved your name on hearts, not tombstones.”

Those who knew Richard Leakey well will tell you that he was not all about finding old jawbones, fighting corruption, or his drive to end poaching (and poachers). He had an interesting perspective on life. And as we bid farewell to this polymath, I am reminded of an unexpected lesson he taught my friend Edwin Njuguna, who worked with him for many years, “Always have a will. You can update it as many times as you want, but always have one.”

We have truly lost one of the greats. A legend of a man.

Samuel Maina is the regional protection officer at Protection International Africa. He is a former communication manager, WildlifeDirect.