Richard Leakey Leads the Charge in Kenya’s War on Elephant Poaching


Richard Schiffman, Scientific American 

Date Published

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In the world of science, Richard Leakey is as close to royalty by birth as one gets. The son of Louis and Mary Leakey, whose dramatic discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania helped establish Africa as the birthplace of humankind, Richard is best known for his excavation of a nearly complete 1.6 million-year-old skeleton of  “Turkana Boy”—a young Homo erectusmale found near Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1984. In 1989 Leakey was appointed to head Kenya’s fledgling wildlife service, where he developed a reputation as an incorruptible if confrontational public servant. He resigned in 1994, alleging corruption among officials in the government of President Daniel arap Moi, and formed his own political party, Safina. The controversial Leakey reentered government service as Cabinet Secretary in 1999. Last year he was appointed chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Scientific American interviewed Leakey, now 71, earlier this month at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he is chair of the Turkana Basin Institute, about his efforts to preserve Kenya’s wild heritage.

Scientific American: Why did you, as the heir of the great family of paleontology, go into conservation?

Richard Leakey: When I studied fossils, I was dealing with species that became extinct because of climate change, because of over-predation. Today, when I stand on the magnificent Kenyan landscape in the midst of so many of their successors, the survivors—now different species—it’s a very powerful experience. I feel I’m at home with them. I understand myself better. I sense my place within the larger continuum of life. So the paleontology is not separate from my concern for wildlife, it is very much a part of it.

SA: As head of the KWS from 1989 to 1994, you famously cracked down on corruption in the wildlife service and armed your rangers to combat a wave of ivory poaching, which was hitting Kenya hard at the time.

RL: We also had to somehow impact the market. My idea was to destroy confiscated ivory by bonfire. That generated massive publicity around the fact that elephants were being killed for their teeth, which led to CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) putting an international ban on ivory sales. The ban had a big impact. The number of elephants being killed in Kenya went down from thousands a year to maybe 100 by the end of 1990, and it remained at that low level for at least a decade.

SA: What happened to bring poaching back to the disastrous levels that exist today in much of Africa?

RL: Once the illegal killing subsided, there was still a lot of ivory sitting around in storerooms, and some countries—South Africa in particular, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe—thought that this could earn them money if it was sold. They persuaded CITES to allow them to put it on the market. We in Kenya felt that once the ivory trade got going again, it would be very difficult for people to distinguish between a valid export document and a false one. So, very quickly, ivory was again being poached and exported out with doctored documents. The price rose sharply and big criminal cartels started taking an interest. It was a deplorable situation.

SA: To help deal with this crisis, you were invited back last year to chair the Kenya Wildlife Service by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. Why did you accept?

RL: The president promised that the board and I would have a lot of freedom to make decisions that won’t be interfered with politically by corrupt officials. When I started as chairman, morale in the wildlife service was abysmal. Now we’re beginning to see the right people doing the right things, because they feel safe, they’re not going to be interfered with. In the past 11 months, Kenya has lost 94 elephants—in contrast to several hundred for the same period the previous year.

SA: You are planning another ivory burn, the largest ever, on April 30.

RL: My feeling is that many people who are buying this ivory in China and elsewhere simply don’t know what it is doing to elephants. Maybe they think that it is coming off elephants that have died of natural causes. When Kenya burns $100 million worth of ivory, they’ll say, “What the hell was that about?” It will help open their eyes to what is actually happening.
SA: What about Kenyans? The perception is that people in rich countries care more than Africans about wildlife protection.

RL: Over the past decades, National Geographic, the BBC, all these big media groups have been producing documentaries on African wildlife for consumption abroad. None of these films has been shown in Kenya—ever. WildlifeDirect, [a charitable organization] which I founded, persuaded some film houses to give us these documentaries for free. Starting in January they have been airing every Saturday at 8 p.m. The reaction has been extraordinary. It’s trending number one in Kenyan social media every time they are shown. Last week when some lions wandered into town, there were hundreds of tweets from Kenyans saying, “Don’t hurt them.” You’ll soon have a population in Kenya that is as much in love with these animals as people are in London, Paris and New York.

SA: The usual rationale for game reserves in Africa is that they generate tourist dollars.

RL: Kenyans are recognizing that the whole philosophy around wildlife has got to change. For now, tourism is a major element in our economic future. It is fickle, however, and at best a medium-term help, because industries and manufacturing will eventually take up the slack as the nation develops. But on another level, many people are coming to recognize that wild spaces where you can take a deep breath and enjoy beauty is something that every country needs. Kenyans are seeing this as their invaluable national heritage. That is far more important than tourism in the long term.

SA: What about people in rural villages who live dangerously close to wild animals?

RL: Kenya’s human population has tripled. People are increasingly moving into areas where animals are. A lot get killed by elephant, buffalo, crocodile, crops are destroyed and there is a certain sour feeling between humans and animals. I firmly believe that we have to fence off the national parks so that the animals cannot get into the farms and the goats and cattle of the herders can’t get into the parks.

SA: That’s a pretty radical proposal.

RL: Yes, but it may be the only one that works. The technology for fencing is very good now, but expensive. We’re going for concessional loans from the multinational institutions like the World Bank. These fences will make it easier to deal with the poaching problem, because herders’ stock wandering around parks are frequent covers for poachers [who pretend to be herders]. It is going to take us three to five years, but when we get to the other side people will say, “Well done.” At the moment they’re saying, “You’re crazy.”
SA: People in rural Kenya are mostly not seeing much of a payback from wildlife tourism. In Namibia and Botswana, community-run reserves have garnered local support. Don’t you need to get average Kenyans behind the protection of wildlife?

RL: Of course you need to get people’s support, but do you do it on the basis that when you’ve got a boom in tourism, the people living around the parks get a bonus and their kids go to school, and then when tourism wanes, unfortunately, their kids are pulled from school? In my view, money from tourism should go to the central government and be used to build better hospitals, roads and infrastructure for the whole nation. It is not just for temporarily propping up the people who happen to live next to the park.

SA: Do you feel a conflict about using government funds to protect wildlife when so many Kenyans are impoverished?

RL: When I was Secretary to the Cabinet in Kenya, every budgeted item crossed my desk for the entire machinery of government. And many of my colleagues from my former life in wildlife said, “Couldn’t you just add a little bit to our budget? It would be such a help.” And I would have to tell them, “Morally, no. When you’ve got so many people whose children don’t go to school, without inoculations, without water, without homes even, no I can’t take any extra money from them to give to you [for wildlife conservation].” That was a tough two years for me.

SA: Now the shoe is on the other foot again.

RL: Yes, but I appreciate how much it matters to help the people. Without tackling poverty there is no security for anybody in our society, no institutional security, no national security—and definitely no security for our wild lands and wildlife.

SA: Mombasa (Kenya’s second-largest city) remains perhaps the leading port in East Africa for the export of illicit ivory to Asia. What is the Kenyan government doing to get this situation under control?

RL: Nowadays most of the ivory that has been going through Mombasa is not Kenyan ivory—it is Tanzanian, it’s from Central Africa. The first objective that I have given myself was to stop the killing of Kenyan elephants, and we have done that. Stopping the smuggling is beyond the scope of the KWS. It remains a work in progress. The Port Authority in Mombasa cleaned out their staff from top to bottom four weeks ago. They’ve got a completely new customs unit, a new unit for handling containers, a new unit on the dock. At the moment, it’s looking good.

SA: There is a proposed highway that would cut across the Serengeti Plain in neighboring Tanzania. Some environmentalists say this would end the largest wildlife migration on Earth. Yet you have come out in favor of it.

RL: The Serengeti is a fantastic ecosystem and should be preserved at all costs, but we need to address the problem realistically. The Serengeti is also surrounded by growing communities. The towns this road is intended to serve are projected to grow into a 3 million-plus metropolis. Tanzania is building a second port within the next decade. They are clearly looking—as we in Kenya are— at [trade with] Central Africa. Hence the need for a road. So yes, I support a transport corridor across the Serengeti. But 40 kilometers of the highway should be elevated 30 meters above the ground to enable wildlife to move back and forth.

SA: What is your greatest worry in the years ahead?

RL: Climate change. It’s just terrifying. I’m really concerned that, through population growth and unplanned development around the parks, we’ve created “islands” for the wildlife. And if you look at the paleontological record, where there are islands and there has been climate change the island species become extinct long before they do on the mainland because there is nowhere to go. If there is a drought and the waterholes dry up in the park, there is nowhere to go. I’m not sure what we are going to do about lack of water, diminished rainfall in the future.

SA: Brad Pitt will be playing you in a movie about your life in a film directed by Angelina Jolie. How do you feel about that?

RL: I always wanted there to be a film where the plight of elephants and rhinos could be exposed. If a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are seen fighting to save these animals, tens of millions of people, including in China, will believe them.

SA: So Brad Pitt playing Richard Leakey could be a more powerful voice than Richard Leakey.

RL: Much more powerful, a thousand times more powerful!