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Richard Leakey, whose discoveries helped prove mankind began in Africa, is dead at 77

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Richard Leakey has died. The famed anthropologist whose discoveries helped prove mankind began in Africa was 77 years old. Leakey was also a conservationist, leading the charge to try to wipe out the poaching of African elephants and rhinos, although his methods were often considered controversial. NPR's Jackie Northam has this remembrance.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It was probably inevitable that Richard Leakey would make a career of fossil hunting. He was born in Nairobi in 1944, the second of three sons to the renowned paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey. Still, when he was younger, Leakey chafed at the idea of following in his parents' footsteps. Instead, he became a safari guide, but he soon tired of that, and in his early 20s found himself on digs in remote parts of Kenya. He described what it was like on NPR's Science Friday program in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RICHARD LEAKEY: It's really like visiting a new zoo every day you go out. You find things that you haven't seen before. You intellectually piqued practically throughout the day, and so there's nothing in a day that doesn't give you some form of satisfaction, even though it may be tough.

NORTHAM: In 1984, Leakey and his team struck gold, uncovering a Homo erectus skeleton of a young boy. Carol Ward is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Missouri and a longtime friend of Leakey. She says the skeleton, dubbed the Turkana Boy, provided a clear window into the evolutionary past.

CAROL WARD: The Turkana Boy is an amazing specimen. He lived a million and a half years ago, and the remarkable thing about him is his skeleton is nearly complete, which is exceptionally rare in the fossil record, especially in eastern Africa.

NORTHAM: Ward says Leakey had a gift for seeing the big picture for logistics, how to find the fossils and how to expand the number of researchers, particularly Kenyans.

WARD: One of the things that was especially important to him was his passion for his home country of Kenya. And he recognized that Kenyans needed to own the evidence of their prehistory. This needed to be a Kenyan endeavor, not foreigners coming in, finding fossils and objects, taking them away.

NORTHAM: Ward says Leakey was politically savvy and well-connected. His influence led to the creation of the National Museums of Kenya, the country's central repository of fossils. When his interest turned to conservation, Leakey's power made him a leader in the fight against wildlife poaching.

PAULA KAHUMBU: He single-handedly prevented elephants in Africa from going extinct. That's what a lot of people believe.

NORTHAM: Paula Kahumbu knew Leakey for about 50 years and has been running his charity, WildlifeDirect, in Nairobi for more than a decade. She says Leakey was passionate about wiping out the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horns. Some of his efforts were controversial - setting fire to 12 tons of illegal ivory and arming game wardens to confront poachers. Kahumbu says Leakey was a man of exacting standards.

KAHUMBU: He was a visionary, and he was a person who stood for integrity and excellence, and anybody who wasn't clean or didn't work hard would come under his crosshairs. Some people did find him controversial because he felt he had very important work to do, and he didn't suffer fools gladly.

NORTHAM: Kahumbu says despite losing his legs in a car crash in 1993 and increasing illness in his later years, Leakey continued to be active, taking up politics at one point, creating the Turkana Basin Institute to carry on his archaeological work and, more recently, making wine from grapes grown at the equator. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly reports that Richard Leakey lost his legs in an auto accident. His injuries were sustained in a plane crash.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 5, 2022 at 10:00 PM MST
This story incorrectly reports that Richard Leakey lost his legs in an auto accident. His injuries were sustained in a plane crash.
Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.