Postscript On Leaky

Over the decades, Leakey inspired countless scientists and activists through his books and talks. Photograph by William Campbell / Getty

We do not normally link to obituaries, but since I felt compelled to recently, this one seems a must also. Nearly two years ago we linked to a profile of Richard Leakey and the author of that profile has written a moving postscript:

On the night of January 2nd, I got a text from Paula Kahumbu, the Kenyan conservationist. “Dear friends, sad news,” she wrote. “Richard Leakey just passed away at his home in Kona Baridi.” Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and wildlife conservationist, had been her mentor—a mercurial, controversial advocate for African wildlife, whose tumultuous career was central to Kenya’s history in the past half century.

Leakey was always a cheerful combatant. When I last saw him, two years ago, in Nairobi, he told me that “the Grim Reaper” had been “lurking around here for a long time.” He had survived two kidney transplants, a liver transplant, and a plane crash that cost him both legs, but was as uncomplaining about his ailments as he was uncompromising in his views.

Leakey was working on a Museum of Humankind, to be built on a hilltop outside the Kenyan capital. A rendering of the design, by Daniel Libeskind, showed twin stone spires rising over the Great Rift Valley. The museum would help consecrate Kenya’s place as both the ancient cradle of humankind and a leader in current wildlife-conservation efforts. Leakey had secured a prominent role in both arenas; the museum would also be a monument to his life’s work. He acknowledged that he had yet to secure financing—the building alone would cost a hundred million dollars—but he seemed undeterred. He confided gleefully that he was having lunch the next day with an American billionaire whom he was courting.

Leakey was born in Nairobi in 1944, and in a sense he inherited the direction of his life’s work. His parents, the Anglo-Kenyan paleontologists Mary and Louis Leakey, had done pioneering research on the origins of the human species, and had also cultivated some of Africa’s most notable wildlife protectors. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, who carried out groundbreaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania and mountain gorillas in Rwanda, respectively, were Louis’s protégés.

Fiercely competitive with his parents, Leakey dropped out of high school to strike out on his own, and soon began conducting paleontological expeditions. He had quick successes, with fossil discoveries that supported his parents’ findings, and Time put him on its cover, in 1977. Seven years later, he made a startling find: near Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya, he and his team unearthed the fossil remains of a 1.9-million-year-old hominid, the most complete skeleton of its kind ever recovered…

Read the whole postscript here.

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