Richard Leakey was born Richard Erskine Frere Leakey on December 19, 1944, in Nairobi, Kenya. While he answered to many titles, including paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and politician, people knew him best for his contribution to the study of human evolution as well as his conservation efforts in Kenya. His discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus in 1984 actually propelled him to international acclaim.
Leakey descended from a family of famous palaeontologists. He grew up immersed in the world of science and exploration. His parents, Louis and Mary Leakey were both pioneering paleoanthropologists who made significant discoveries in Africa, including the famous Homo habilis fossils at Olduvai Gorge.
Following in his parent’s footsteps, Leakey began working in paleoanthropology in the early 1960s, participating in numerous expeditions to Kenya and Tanzania. In 1967, he discovered the first skull of a Homo habilis, an early human ancestor. Later in his career, he led the team that discovered the nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus, known as “Turkana Boy.” Turkana Boy provided important insights into the physical characteristics and behaviour of this ancient human species.
In addition to his scientific work, Leakey played an active role in conservation. He, for instance, worked hard to protect Kenya’s wildlife and natural habitats. During his tenure as the Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service from 1989 to 1994, he oversaw significant reforms and crackdowns on poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
Most Kenyans might not remember Leakey’s days in politics when he served as a Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2002. After his tenure as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, he founded the Safina Party. Through Safina, Leakey advocated for democratic reforms and anti-corruption measures. In 1997, he also ran for the presidency of Kenya which the incumbent, Daniel arap Moi won.
In 2003, Leakey became the chairman of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, an independent organisation that monitors human rights abuses in Kenya. He also founded the Turkana Basin Institute, which aims to advance the study of human origins and promote conservation and development in the Turkana Basin region of Kenya.
Throughout his career, Leakey received numerous awards and honours. He received the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. He continued to be an influential figure in both the fields of paleoanthropology and conservation until his death on January 2, 2022, aged 77.
In addition to his scientific and political achievements, Leakey received recognition for his contributions to the arts. He co-wrote and co-produced the 1985 film “The Making of Mankind,” which documented the search for human origins in Africa. He has also written several books, including “Origins” and “The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind.”
Throughout his life, Leakey faced personal challenges, including a 1993 plane crash that resulted in the amputation of both of his legs below the knee. However, that did not deter him nor kill his passion for paleoanthropology, conservation, and politics. He relentlessly remained committed to promoting social and environmental justice in Kenya and around the world. Kenya Geographic honours him with a special place in our Hall of Fame.