The Contributions of Freethinkers: Richard Leakey

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Richard Leakey April 21, 2010

Atheists have a great number of famous names to our credit. We can justly claim renowned composers, scientists, musicians, civil rights leaders – and conservationists, as we’ll see in today’s post on the contributions of freethinkers.

Richard Leakey was born in Nairobi in 1944, son of the famous archaeologist Louis Leakey. The elder Leakey was a strong supporter of racial equality, and Richard’s upbringing reflected that belief. He started school soon after the Mau Mau rebellion had been defeated, and when he spoke up in favor of the native Kenyans, his classmates taunted him as a “nigger lover”, beat him, spat on him and forced him into a wire cage. Several online sources say that he also resolved never to be a Christian after he was caned for missing chapel services.

Partly due to incidents like this, Richard never finished high school. But despite this, he showed an impressive aptitude of his own for finding fossils of human ancestors – including Turkana Boy, one of the most complete hominid skeletons ever unearthed, which was discovered by a paleontological team under his direction. He also showed impressive skill at administration, becoming director of the National Museums of Kenya at just 25.

In 1989, in response to an international outcry over the slaughter of elephants and rhinos by poachers, President Daniel Arap Moi appointed Leakey head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and tasked him with protecting Kenya’s endangered wildlife. Leakey accomplished this in characteristically bold fashion – by creating well-armed, specially-trained park ranger units that were authorized to shoot poachers on sight. Draconian though this seems, it was effective: almost a hundred poachers were killed during his first year at KWS, and poaching rates declined thereafter. Leakey also made international headlines when he burned 12 tons of confiscated illegal ivory, worth more than $3 million, in a massive bonfire.

In 1993, Leakey was flying a small private plane that crashed near the Great Rift Valley. This is widely believed, though never proved, to have been sabotage by someone seeking to assassinate him, probably in revenge for the anti-poaching campaign. He survived the crash, though he was badly injured and both his legs had to be amputated. Within a few months, however, he was up and walking again on prosthetics and back on the job.

Unfortunately, as a crusading reformist, Leakey may have been too zealous even for his own government. President Moi demanded that he reinstate 1,600 KWS employees who had been fired for corruption or inefficiency, and when Leakey refused, Moi gutted the agency, taking away most of its budget and power. Leakey resigned in protest, and in 1995, founded a new political party, Safina, devoted to the cause of reform. His campaign drew angry threats from British settlers who felt his zeal was putting them in jeopardy, and on one occasion, he was attacked by a mob loyal to Moi’s party. As always, however, he refused to quit, and two years later, he won a seat in Kenya’s Parliament. A year after that, with international lenders withholding funds because of pervasive corruption, Moi asked Leakey to rejoin his administration. As a January 2010 article in Sierra puts it:

So Richard Leakey, five times accused of treason — and of being a racist, colonialist, and atheist (the only accusation to which he pleads guilty) — was named head of Kenya’s Public Service.

This time, Leakey had even more power than before: in his new job, he had authority second only to the president. But even this wasn’t enough, and when his anti-corruption efforts ran into repeated political roadblocks, he quit for the second time. This time, he swore off politics for good.

At 65, Leakey still lives in Kenya, hale and hearty after two kidney transplants and still working to advance the cause of conservation in the country where he’s spent nearly all his life. His most recent achievement is the launch of WildlifeDirect, a website that directly connects Western donors with conservationists and field biologists working with threatened and endangered species throughout the world. In 2008, WildlifeDirect helped to fund and train 700 park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Throughout his life, Leakey’s zeal for combatting corruption has been exceeded only by his passion for bridging the gap between humans and nature, whether through unearthing our fossil past or preserving our threatened present for posterity. It’s plain that his being an atheist didn’t deprive him of an ethical compass. If anything, it contributed to the sense of profound interconnection with the natural world that’s driven all the greatest advocates of conservation, past and present. Richard Leakey is one freethinker that atheists can be proud to have on our side.

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