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.