Richard Leakey on his dance with death, donated organs and God

Former chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Board Richard Leakey during an interview with Standard, on Wednesday, April 10 2019. [David Njaaga,Standard]

Richard Leakey has had several brushes with death.

When he was a boy, he fell off a horse and fractured his skull. A few years later, a puff adder – one of the deadliest snakes in the world – sunk its fangs into his fingers during a translocation gone wrong.  

Had it not been for his father Louis Leakey’s swift injection with an anti-venom, Richard shudders to think of what would have happened.  

Years later, his kidney malfunctioned and doctors said his time on earth was limited. His brother Philip donated a kidney but his body rejected it. Death loomed, with doctors giving a grim prognosis until his body adjusted; as if by miracle.

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Then his liver failed. His friend donated a slice of his own.

Chilling experience

Simply put, Leakey has tangoed with death, but his foot is always ahead of the dance.   

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His most chilling experience is surviving a plane crash in 1993. He lost control of the aircraft he was piloting and it tumbled down. He says when he was on the ground, with the plane’s engine pressed on his legs, he thought for a moment that his life was ending. He lost consciousness.

When he came to, he was at Nairobi Hospital being prepared for an amputation. His lost both legs.

His friends called his survival the hand of God. Leakey called it luck. He does not believe in the existence of God.

“God is the biggest fake news of all time. I am a humanist. I believe in evolution,” he says.

When pressed for a description about himself, he likes to be recognised as the man who played a leading role in establishing the place of Africans in evolution. For a long time, people described Africans as primitive, so for him to prove that humanity share the same ancestry is one of his biggest achievement.

The Leakey’s have been involved in several archaeological inventions that are acclaimed all over the world. Richard has 15 honorary degrees and more than 30 awards.

For a man who dropped out of school in Form Two aged 16, this is no mean feat. He hated school and found it unnecessary and boring. He performed dismally and when teachers told his parents: “Richard has no potential; not even in the army with these grades,” he says he almost leapt with joy.

It meant his dreaded trips to Duke of York, now Lenana School, were coming to an end.

From then, he tried different things: A tours company. Keeping snakes. Boiling carcasses and sending skeletons to museums abroad. He became director of National Museums of Kenya when he was 22.

He started his career in palaeoanthropology by accompanying his father to different excavation sites. He became chairman of KWS in 1990 when the sector was dominated by poachers. In one meeting, he gave them what humanitarians considered the worst advice.

“If they shoot you, shoot back. Deal with them,” he told rangers.

There was an outcry when people started complaining that KWS was killing innocent people. Leakey was criticized for valuing wildlife than humans. In 1989, he led in burning of 12 tonnes of ivory and significantly reducing the market price. He was winning the fight against poaching.

William Kiprono, a former KWS director who worked with Leakey, describes him as a go-getter. He gets what he wants. Richard’s flaw, he says, is that he does not delegate.

He believes he can do it all, and does not trust his juniors.

“He wants to do everything so it makes it hard for him to mentor people,” Kiprono says.

Others think Leakey is arrogant and unpredictable. One of the people who worked with him closely says he is hard to be around.  

“He believes he knows everything. When you tell him something different, he gets annoyed,” he says.

Leakey thinks it is his impatience that is often mistaken for arrogance.

“I am impatient and forceful. People take too long to move and I cannot take it,” he says.

Kanu’s liver

When the translocation of 14 rhinos to Tsavo led to their death, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala blamed Leakey, saying he had sabotaged the process because he was bitter that his contract at the KWS was not to be renewed. 

“I was attacked in ways I cannot forgive. I was very upset. I do not want to revisit it,” says Leakey on Balala’s claims. 

His fallout with his brother Philip who had a dalliance with the Moi regime while Richard was in opposition under Safina party was a much discussed topic. 

Paul Muite, who cofounded Safina with Leakey, says at one point, he met Philip who told him: “Tell Richard the kidney I gave him belongs to KANU. KANU wants its kidney back.”

Richard hates it when people ask him about Philip’s kidney. He says it is his kidney; that once someone donates an organ, it stops being theirs and becomes property of the recipient. 

When he was appointed head of civil service in 1999, he sacked 25,000 civil servants. He says it was a low moment in his life as many considered him an enemy, but he believes it had to be done. 

He has led an eventful life, and is currently working on his Ngaren project. It is a museum that will celebrate human evolution.

Leakey says the project will show humanity’s journey by exposing forces that shape Earth’s climate, evolution, timescale of human’s existence and impact. It will be on a 300-acre piece in Kona Baridi, 60 kilometers from Nairobi.  

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Richard LeakeyDeathOrgan donationKenya Wildlife Service