Richard Leakey was raised by famous parents, Louis and Mary, arguably the world’s best-known archaeologists. While they were discovering ancient pre-human bones in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, Richard was spending his time observing and tracking Africa’s rich diversity of wildlife. After leaving high school at 17, he began a career working with wildlife and leading a photographic safari company.
In 1968, Leakey made his first important fossil finds when his team uncovered unusually well-preserved ancient human remains in Kenya’s Lake Turkana region. In the same year, Leakey, then only 23, was hired as director of the National Museum of Kenya which, over the course of 21 years, he was to build into one of the most respected museums in Africa.
In 1989, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi appointed Leakey as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which was then plagued by rampant poaching of elephants in its parks and reserves. Leakey weeded out corrupt officials and built an effective park police service, while simultaneously working on community development programs giving people living near the wildlife reserves a stake in tourism. As director of KWS, Leakey also campaigned for passage of the worldwide ban on the ivory trade, which went into effect in 1990.
Leakey continued to work with KWS even after he lost both legs in a 1993 plane crash, but political clashes with the Kenyan government led to his resignation in 1994. Since then, Leakey has been active with a new Kenyan reformist political party, Safina (Swahili for “Noah’s Ark”) which he founded in 1995. When E visited Nairobi in February, Leakey was at the center of a political firestorm for his work to form an effective opposition alliance. He has been harshly attacked by President arap Moi, and was beaten in a near-riot by Moi’s supporters.
Leakey is the author of eight books, the latest being The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Human Kind, co-written with science writer Roger Lewin. In it, the authors lay out the historical record of the Earth’s five previous mass extinctions, and argue that the sixth is now underway.
E MAGAZINE: You’ve had two careers, working as both a conservationist and as a paleontologist. Could you share your insights about the critical relationship between humankind’s past and humankind’s future.
RICHARD LEAKEY: I’ve been deeply struck by the dynamics and effects of the past. I think we tend to look at life with a very short-term perspective. When I was in charge of wildlife for the Kenyan government and was trying to preserve nature and national parks, I realized that we were probably trying to stop the clock, and we can’t do that. From what I’ve seen as a paleontologist, change—and extinctions—are inevitable. There are many things totally out of our control. I think we have to come up with a formula that will enable us to preserve biodiversity without necessarily managing it in the sense of trying to freeze it in time. It can’t be kept as we first knew it.
Your book discusses the Earth’s five previous periods of mass extinction, and says we are currently in the sixth. What is the magnitude of the current problem, and how certain is the scientific community that the activities of humans are the cause of this extinction?
Human activity—certainly over the last several hundred years or even as far back as the last 5,000 years—is causing a massive loss of species. It’s very difficult to know the rate—we don’t even really know how many species there are. But whether there are 50 million species or 100 million or 150 million species of life on the planet today, we’re probably killing off between 10,000 and 50,000 species a year. Perhaps not the elephant or the rhino, but species of plants, species of insects and species of micro-organisms. One must look at the geological record—there have been extinctions forever, since there was life. But scientists today project that if we continue to modify habitat and be as negligent as we are in terms of disposable waste, clearing of forest, and the destruction of water and habitat, we could well be seeing the loss of 60 percent of species diversity by early in the next century. If that were to happen, we’d be facing a sort of cataclysm, a crash with many consequences. It’s worth considering that if we do destroy much of life and life’s support systems, we might be one of the species to become extinct.
There are a group of conservative scientists and commentators in the U.S.—people like Rush Limbaugh—who really see no limits on the capacity of the Earth to sustain life indefinitely into the future. You call them the “Anti-Alarmists.” How would you answer their claim that everything’s going to be fine?
I certainly know a lot of those people and I hear what they’re saying. If you look at it strictly in terms of one’s own personal lifetime, there is reasonable security. If we lost the elephant, would the world necessarily be worse off? Probably not. But if we have an attitude that allows us to lose the elephant, then I believe we may very well be heading down a road that has serious consequences for humankind. One of the very interesting things that we can look at today is the appearance of HIV, which is now infecting some 30 million people and nearly doubling every year in Africa. As we stress our world, new roadblocks are developed, and we shouldn’t be complacent about the Earth’s future.
In your book, you briefly discuss the Gaia Theory, which holds that the Earth is one living ecosystem. Do you see instances of viruses out of control, like the HIV virus, as a natural reaction of the Earth’s ecosystem to cleanse itself of what may be perceived as an irritant—as a destructive force?
That would imply that there’s some sort of direction and process that actually works in reaction to the present human over-population. I don’t think there is. But there are clearly very complex relationships between the different components of life. The Gaia Theory is still controversial, but I think the system’s approach and perspective on life is an important one.
I do believe that the natural world is part of the spiritual dimension people possess. I think to take people out of their concrete jungles and introduce and educate them about the wide open spaces and the wonder of life in its natural setting enriches people. And this spiritual dimension is what justifies the expenditure of public funds on conservation.
Having said that, I think we should take a look at the economic side. Clearly, the appreciation of nature by modestly wealthy people can be an important industry for places like Africa. Ecotourism, if it’s managed properly—built around natural systems and wildlife—can be an enormously significant source of revenue generation. It is potentially a driving force for making life better for people around the world.
In your very successful fight to save the elephant in Kenya, what are some of the valuable lessons that can be applied to saving other species and ecosystems around the world?
The fight to save the elephant wasn’t a fight of mine, rather a fight I was very pr
ivileged to join. It was a fight that was successful, although I don’t think the elephant is yet very safe. What I think is clear is that during that battle we were able to motivate, not only the peoples and government of Kenya and Africa, but of the world. With a relatively small investment, very substantial changes of attitude came about regarding conservation—whether of ecosystems or rainforest, it should all be tackled in the same way. We basically have to galvanize peoples’ attention and make them realize it’s a crisis. Once that happens, I believe most people will get off their stools and do something about it.
You also mention that the rainforests offer countless natural remedies for diseases like cancer and other maladies that we haven’t even discovered yet.
Most of the substances that make us better when we’re sick are ultimately derived from plants. The genetic resources available in the tropical rainforests and other natural ecosystems are very poorly understood. There’s a vast depository of genetic material left that could prove enormously beneficial and useful to our species. The wanton destruction—for profit—of vast tracts of land and enormous numbers of species could be cutting off our most vital resources.
Your book talks about the way in which societies around the world are being spurred to ever-greater levels of consumption, and also to exploitation of our resources and the inevitable pollution.
Ultimately, I believe there is a limit to what we can consume to live a good life. It’s not so much the patterns of consumption but the patterns of waste that are causing most of the trouble. We are learning to generate energy that is much cleaner, and we are learning to generate biodegradable products that leave the world slightly less of a mess. I believe we have a lot of room to improve, and we’ll have to if our numbers keep increasing. One of my principle criticisms of life in the West, particularly life in the U.S., is that it is extremely wasteful. I don’t see how we can expect average Americans to lower their standard of living, but I can see why many millions of people would like to raise theirs.
Talking about over-population, do you see the eventual reduction of our numbers as critical to the survival of the planet, and do you see that coming about in a voluntary, gradual way? Or will it be necessary for a more authoritarian solution—as we’ve seen in places like China, where there are severe restrictions on the numbers of children?
I would much prefer to see population growth restricted on a voluntary basis, which can be instigated, inspired, encouraged and stimulated by a number of other factors—economics being one of them. I think we have to get to a point where world population levels will begin to come down. I think it can happen, but it will take a long time. The greatest setback we face is that so much of the world population is so poor. There simply isn’t an incentive or an opportunity for them to appreciate the benefits of small families. The biggest stumbling block facing the next century is the inequality of life expectations and the enormous body of deep poverty that has to be addressed if we’re going to avoid real catastrophe and chaos.
Do you see a redistribution of wealth occurring in the future through a mechanism like the United Nations? Certainly, greater global cooperation is a desired goal, but it seems to be very difficult to attain. How do you see the world coming together to make these changes?
I don’t propose to have simple solutions, and I must be very careful not to let anyone think that it’s all sorted out—it’s not. It should be possible to mold and create a conscience in the minds of people that would help the process of eliminating waste and, eventually, the redistribution of resources and wealth. It is indeed sad that with the communication breakthroughs we’ve had, very little of it being targeted at the socially important issues for the survival of the species.
In 1995 you helped found Safina, a new political party in Kenya. What in your experience as a naturalist drove you into the field of politics?
I feel very frustrated that a country with tremendous resources—human resources—is still being so badly governed. There is no real democracy in Kenya, and at the end of this century it’s time there was. I found there was a number of people who felt that I could make a difference by adding my voice to the chorus calling for change. I’ve had a fairly high profile—still do—and my voice is heard. I will remain in this political sphere until we see some changes. Kenya must have a better future other than the one presently offered.
Are you optimistic about the ultimate survival, not just of the many species on Earth, but of humankind itself? Do you think we will survive into the next several centuries, or are we at some real critical crossroads?
You mentioned earlier that the alarmists are saying we’re crying wolf, and I don’t want to sound like that. I basically do feel reasonably hopeful. I’m most impressed by some of the changes that have been made, things that, 30 years ago, my parents couldn’t see. I think there are clear signs that we have within us the ability to do some fairly unexpected things to make the world a better place.
If you had President Clinton’s ear, what would you tell him about U.S. policy on the biodiversity issue?
I think President Clinton and Vice President Gore know full well what the issues are; it’s unfortunate that it’s the American public that’s being misled. America must not disengage because it’s in a vitally important position as a world leader with enormous resources in technical, human and financial terms. It’s critical that America reach out instead of pulling back. I believe some of the Republican rhetoric I’ve heard over the last few months has been a little off-key, and I think it will be a very sad day if America were not to take on more global engagement. America needs to be an investment source, a leadership source, an inspirational source and a source of friendship and hope for humankind.
What is it that you’d like to spend your time and energy doing in the future, beyond the political movement in Kenya?
I would like to do some more writing and traveling, visit more countries—not to work, but to see. I would also like to get out of public life and what has so often felt like a hot seat.