Richard Leakey, who has died days after celebrating his 77th birthday, was a pugnacious man whose achievements were as remarkable as they were diverse.

Born on 19 December 1944 in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, he was a world-famous fossil expert, author, and conservationist, as well as being an opposition MP, anti-corruption campaigner, an economic reformer, and head of the country’s civil service.

He was beaten up, threatened, and badly injured in a plane crash which saw him lose both his legs.

He was branded a racist by then-President Daniel Arap Moi, lauded by him, and hired and fired by the president.

“I think pressure probably suits me,” Leakey once said with urbane understatement.

His first job was studying fossils. His parents, Louis and Mary were famous archaeologists and paleontologists who spent decades exploring Kenya’s Rift Valley, searching for the origins of mankind.

In his 20s, Leakey almost eclipsed his parents’ work, making his own important finds and writing books.

In the late 1980s, Leakey switched careers to take over as head of Kenya’s Wildlife Service (KWS) at a time when the organization was close to collapse and poachers were busy wiping out the country’s entire elephant and rhino populations.

Energetic, ruthless, and seemingly incorruptible, Leakey told his rangers to shoot poachers on sight and organized the public burning of a huge cache of ivory.

Dr. Richard Leakey, Minister of the Environment. More than twenty (20) tons of Elephant tusks, captured from poachers, are burned to keep the ivory off the international market and to discourage the illegal killing of elephants for their tusks

Leakey’s methods were successful but his combative style earned him plenty of enemies. It was a pattern that would be repeated again and again.

More recently, his focus had moved to what he saw as an even bigger environmental threat – climate change.

“We’ve created a terrible mess,” he told the BBC’s Vivienne Nunis in an interview in September 2021.

When, in 1993, the single-engine plane he was flying lost power and crashed, many speculated that it was sabotage. Both legs were amputated below the knee.

In 1994 Leakey changed careers once again, quitting the KWS to enter the equally ruthless world of Kenyan politics and helping to form an opposition party called Safina to campaign for multi-party democracy.

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