Leakey To Ride Herd On Kenyan Wildlife

In an effort to thwart bands of poachers who are decimating the population of wild animals in Kenya’s national parks, the African nation’s president has appointed famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey as Director of Wildlife Management and Conservation. 

Virginia Morell
May 28, 1989

In an effort to thwart bands of poachers who are decimating the population of wild animals in Kenya’s national parks, the African nation’s president has appointed famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey as Director of Wildlife Management and Conservation.

The appointment represents a decisive victory for the 45-year-old scientist, who for the past year had been involved in a bitter public dispute with some top Kenyan government officials over the poaching issue. Now, Leakey’s appointment seems to indicate a new resolve on the part of the Kenyan government to preserve its wild animals and their habitats—heartening news for ethologists and conservationists who have watched in dismay as the population of some Kenyan animals has dropped to critical lows.

Leakey’s run-ins with officials have been marked by vociferous disagreements with two of the country’s most powerful politicians: George Muhoho, the former Minister of Wildlife and Tourism, and Joseph at Karanja, Kenya’s former...

With the appointment of Leakey, Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi, apparently adamant that the poaching be stopped—has moved decisively to settle the matter. He asked the scientist to transfer to the Wildlife Department and oversee a redevelopment program for Kenya’s national parks: For Leakey, the change presents a new and welcome challenge. During his 20-year tenure as museums director, he had built the original (and single) National Museum into a regional system, created an internationally acclaimed center for the study of human origins, and became famous himself for his numerous fossil hominid discoveries. but in recent years, he had grown restless with administrative duties; he had, in fact, decided to leave his post at the end of 1989. So he is stimulated by the prospect of having a new mission, although he acknowledges that it will entail “enormous difficulties.”

Conservation efforts, Leakey says, will benefit Kenya’s economy as well as scientific research. ‘There is no question,” he notes, “that wildlife and the environment are and will continue to be the backbone of Kenya’s economy. [Tourists who come to Kenya to view the animals provide the country with its main source of foreign currency.] The failure to achieve success with conservation at this time will be a failure to really get Kenya moving forward in terms of economic development.” But standing to gain as well are the scientists who come from around the world to Kenya’s wildlife parks not only to observe the behavior of animals but also to conduct research on the region’s ecology. Over the past decade such scientists have watched in alarm as heavily armed poachers cutdown, for example, the population of rhinoceros and elephants, animals whose disappearance may affect the entire savanna ecology. It has been widely believed by scientists and conservationists within Kenya and abroad that corrupt Kenyan politicians may be behind some of the poaching. Thus, to life science researchers as well as conservationists, the crusading Leakey’s appointment can be regarded as a bright light on a heretofore bleak horizon.

Raising Research Funds

Leakey’s value is likely to be expressed as a fund-raiser for scientific research as well as an environmental expert. While at the museums’ helm, Leakey parlayed his fossil discoveries into a platform for fund-raising. He may be able to tap the contacts he developed on behalf of Kenya’s wild life and ecology sites. He already has made clear his intentions to promote the research of both local and visiting scientists. And he believes that somehow Kenya must “secure the boundaries of the national parks—whether with moats or electric fences or by some other means. We have to find some way of keeping the animals in and unwanted people and livestock out.”

Despite the burden of his new assignment, Leakey has no intention of giving up his fossil-hunting career. For the time being, however, Kenya’s troubled national park system and endangered wildlife are clearly Leakey’s top priorities. He says that government and popular support for the antipoaching forces has recently become more evident in Kenya, which should make his task easier.

“There’ve been several major supportive articles in the press, which I think is unprecedented for wildlife in Kenya,” he notes. “There’s a feeling of ‘let’s get this show on the road.”’

Virginia Morell is a freelance science writer based in Ashland, Ore. She is currently writing a biography of the Leakey family for Simon and Schuster 

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