Tributes have been pouring in as news that the famed conservationist and fossil hunter, Richard Leakey dies. Leakey, who passed away overnight, was famous not only for his conservation work and his efforts to stop the trade in ivory, but also for his work in broadening the scientific understanding of human evolution.
Tributes for Leakey, who remained energetic into his 70s despite bouts of skin cancer and kidney and liver disease, were led by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta who said: “Leakey had served our country with distinction.”
Leakey rose to fame after he led expeditions to Africa that shed new light on the scientific understanding of human evolution, discovering the skulls of Homo habilis (1.9 million years old) in 1972 and Homo erectus (1.6 million years old) in 1975.
Those discoveries led to him being featured on the cover of TIME and his leading the BBC TV series The Making of Mankind in 1981. His most famous findings followed in 1984 with the discovery of a complete Homo erectus skeleton in 1984.
He was however perhaps best known for his work with wildlife and his efforts to stop the then-legal global trade in ivory. In 1989 he was appointed to the Kenya Wildlife Agency where his publicity stunt saw 12 tonnes of elephant tusk being set alight making the point they had no value once removed from the animal.
Those efforts saw him make many friends but also many enemies and at the time he lived with round the clock protection saying: “There were regular threats to me at the time and I lived with armed guards. But I made the decision not to be a dramatist and say: ‘They tried to kill me.’ I chose to get on with life.”
In 1993, a small plane piloted by Leakey crashed, crushing his lower legs, both of which were later amputated. At the time there was speculation whether the crash was an accident or sabotage.
Amongst his other achievements Leakey co-founded the Safina Party in Kenya in 1995 and served as the country’s head of civil service from July 1999 to March 2001, and he was also a fellow of the UK-based Royal Society and an honorary fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.
The news that the famed Conservationist and fossil hunter has died will be met with much sadness both in his adopted home Kenya, but also by wildlife conservationists across the world.
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