Lunch with Richard Leakey

The first issue of the Financial Time’s FTWeekend in December 2015 featured its regular “Lunch with the FT.” Richard Leakey was Clive Cookson’s luncheon guest, and Cookson’s account was appropriately titled “From Fossils to Film Stars.” Yes, Leakey, an accomplished paleontologist and son of Louis and Mary Leakey, has, like his parents, made many headline-grabbing fossil finds. He has also rubbed elbows with plenty of film stars. Just last month, Angelina Jolie and Leakey were in London, where they discussed plans for a movie in which Brad Pitt will portray Leakey.

At 70 years of age, Leakey is still going strong. Among other things, he is busy building the Turkana Basin Institute, which he founded, into a world-class research center on the site in northern Kenya where the Leakeys made many notable discoveries, including an almost complete 1.6 million-year-old skeleton known as Turkana Boy. But that’s not all Leakey is up to. Recently, he was appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta to chair the Kenya Wildlife Service, which Leakey founded and served as director-general from 1989-1994.

In addition to paleontology, Leakey has a passion for wildlife conservation. I learned of this during my first lunch with him in the spring of 1972. It was then that the anthropologist Neville Dyson-Hudson, an expert on East African pastoral peoples, and I broke bread with Leakey at the Johns Hopkins Faculty Club in Baltimore. I anticipated plenty of paleontology and anthropology, but those weren’t on the menu. The conversation quickly turned to the topic that most interested Leakey, and as it turns out, the reason why my former colleague Dyson-Hudson had invited me to lunch in the first place: the economics of natural resources.

Leakey had a vision of land use and wildlife resources in East Africa. His observation was that the East African savannahs were, in large part, common property resources. In addition, Leakey noted that the wildlife that roamed over these vast savannahs were fugitive common property resources. He concluded that, unless property rights could be established, both the savannahs and wildlife would eventually be destroyed. For him, this would be a great tragedy not only for the wildlife, but also the indigenous peoples living off the lands in East Africa.

Leakey questioned whether the current system – burdened with its common property problems and regulated by a very British-type system of hunting rules (charges for hunting licenses and penalties for unlicensed hunting, violations of closed seasons and the killing of protected species) – was sustainable. He also questioned whether parks and game reservations – coupled with restrictions on the trade of wildlife meat, skins, and trophies – would actually conserve wildlife. Leakey’s conjecture was: if property rights in the savannahs and wildlife resources could be established, they could be properly managed to enhance land-use productivity. This would, he conjectured, give wildlife economic value, save it from destruction, and enhance the economic well-being of those indigenous peoples who co-exist among the wildlife herds in East Africa.

Leakey wanted to know what I thought of his ideas. Could good property rights cut down on poaching and corruption, save wildlife and enhance the productivity of East Africa’s savannahs? Could well-managed game cropping, trophy hunting, tourism and so forth, coupled with pastoral herding, generate more prosperity than the current land-use arrangements? And could such a wildlife-oriented economy co-exist with traditional herding? On-and-on the questions flowed.

I responded that I thought Leakey was, in principle, on the right track, but that definitive answers about just how one would establish property rights in East Africa’s common property resources, as well as the economic values involved, were practical, empirical questions. Field work and the collection of primary data, among other things, would be required. In addition, I also recall telling Leakey that the questions he raised posed a complex production economics problem. On that point, I was certain. I had learned my lessons on production economics from one of my professors, the great John M. Cassels, an economist who had written a classic essay on that topic in 1936: “On the Law of Variable Proportions.”

Leakey responded positively: he invited me to prepare a research proposal, and subject to its approval, to join him at the National Museums of Kenya as a Research Associate.

I agreed and wrote a proposal, which was approved. In the summer of 1972, I arrived in Nairobi, where I took up residence at the Norfolk Hotel. In addition to spending hot days going over records of hunting licenses, ivory and game trophy export permits in Nairobi, I spent about a month in the field on safari. I have many memories of that. Two notable ones come to mind.

While camping in the Masai Mara National Reserve, I observed first-hand a great deal of poaching, some of it by government employees.  

I also ran into Joy Adamson of Born Free fame out in the bush. It was in the middle of the afternoon, so Adamson had her tracker and scout lay a fire, and we had tea. We spent an hour or so chatting about the economics of wildlife and conservation. Adamson gave my research project a thumbs up, which was very encouraging.

What was not encouraging were some of the findings in those records back in Nairobi. When I added up the number of hunting licenses issued each year and the export permits for ivory, etc., there was a huge gap. Legal exports of wildlife trophies, ivory, etc.–which were recorded at the Customs Department–exceeded hunting licenses issued by the Game Department by a wide margin. There was Trouble in Paradise. Indeed, all my arithmetic pointed to a massive amount of corruption at the very highest levels of government. When the Chief Game Warden figured out where my collection and analysis of (what were considered to be) rather obscure primary data were pointing, I became persona non grata. Shortly thereafter, I caught a flight from Nairobi to Switzerland, where the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is located.

It was at the WWF headquarters in Morges, Switzerland that I started to put some of my notes together. Eventually, many of my findings appeared in a piece I co-authored with Robert K. Davis and Frank Mitchell “Conventional and Unconventional Approaches to Wildlife Exploitation,” which was published in 1973. We concluded that the system of parks, protection, prohibitions on trade and traditional hunting rules and regulations – no matter how well intended – were destined to fail to generate prosperity and conserve wildlife. Only by establishing good property rights in land and wildlife will these resources be rendered valuable. Markets for them would then develop. In consequence, they would be wisely used, protected, and conserved. Prudent resource use is, as it always has been, all about property, prices, markets and legitimate trade.

If Leakey is to succeed during his second tour as the leader of the Kenya Wildlife Service, he must do something big, bold, and unconventional. To that end, he should revisit the findings of the research project he initiated many moons ago at Johns Hopkins.