Outside magazine, June 1994
Richard Leakey’s Fall from Grace
His will and ego made him the most powerful, respected man in African conservation. In the end, they’re what brought him down.
By Joshua Hammer
At half past nine in the morning on the last Wednesday in March, Richard Leakey walks tentatively through the elegant lobby of the Nairobi Serena Hotel. An odd swiveling of his shoulders and a ducklike waddle, reminiscent of a speed-walker at the end of a marathon, betray the fact that the legs he’s balancing on are made of plastic and rubber. “These below-the-knee amputations
are less problematic than most,” he says, leading the way toward the empty bar. “But they’re a little delicate.”
Nearly ten months have gone by since the almost-fatal crash of his single-engine Cessna outside Nairobi, and Leakey is still adapting to his prostheses, fitted at a British hospital last year. As if that weren’t enough to cope with, Leakey’s career has taken a sudden nosedive. A week ago, on March 23, he made the stunning announcement that he was stepping down as director of
the Kenya Wildlife Service–after five years of unprecedented success in protecting the country’s national parks and near-canonization by the conservation world. The move followed a three-month hate campaign waged against him by powerful Kenyan officials, a self-imposed leave of absence, and the release of a government report that accused him of racism and an “arrogant style of
management.” On top of that, Kenya’s president, Daniel arap Moi, issued Leakey an inexplicable series of directives that included turning over KWS antipoaching patrols to the notoriously inefficient Kenyan police. Which is when the celebrated director decided to toss in the towel for good.
“That report is a premeditated smear,” Leakey says, leaning forward, his gaze intent. “It was not an open court; I had no opportunity to make a defense. I’m certainly not corrupt, I’m certainly not arrogant, and I don’t take those allegations seriously.”
Paunchy and dressed in a tieless white shirt, dark green pants, and suede shoes, the 49-year-old Leakey looks more like a mathematics professor at some midwestern American university than a crack manager who until last month commanded 1,500 rangers armed with automatic rifles. His voice is soft, his manner gentle and urbane–both hard to square with the man who executed Moi’s
shoot-to-kill order against elephant poachers in the late 1980s. Still, the man has an aura–his clipped British accent and proverbial stiff upper lip lend him an early-twentieth-century quality, a stoic individualism straight out of West with the Night, Beryl Markham’s classic tale of bush pilots in colonial Kenya. He has thick and sharply angled
eyebrows, black hair combed back in a widow’s peak, gray wisps of hair clinging to ruddy cheeks, and piercing brown eyes that radiate a lively intelligence. In contrast to the lonely and besieged figure I encountered at a lunch six weeks ago, Leakey seems relieved to be finished with the whole wretched ordeal.
Why didn’t he stay on and fight? “You can negotiate down to a position where you’re ineffectual,” he says, sipping coffee in the softly lit lounge paneled with teak carvings of African wildlife. “I think compromising on important principles would be a bigger letdown to the wildlife community.”
He takes a deep breath. “I’ve also got a right to live. I’ve also got a right to wake up happy in the morning,” he says. “Why go on getting beaten to death?”
Richard Leakey’s turnaround of the Kenya Wildife Service, a sprawling organization of 4,500 employees that oversees nearly all of Kenya’s 51 national parks and game reserves, has taken on legendary proportions since Moi appointed him director in April 1989. In those turbulent days, Kenya’s game parks, once the most visited in Africa, teetered near collapse after 13 years of
unchecked government corruption. Poachers were gunning down an average of three elephants a day, often robbing and sometimes killing tourists in the process; the few honest rangers left had sunk into despondency. Over the course of his first year in office Leakey reined in poaching, boosted morale, attracted millions of dollars in Western aid, and transformed himself into an
Those were heady times. Every week seemed to produce another starry-eyed story about the Kenyan-born paleontologist, son of world-famous Louis and Mary Leakey, and his unlikely metamorphosis into the Eliot Ness of wildlife conservation. The fact that this was Kenya–a land beloved by tourists the world over–and that Leakey stood out as a white African in a position of power,
lifted his celebrity that much higher. Environmental groups and wealthy international donors fawned over him and showered him with money. A stream of photographs and articles captured him in heroic guises: smoking out poachers, inspecting troops, seizing ivory traders, and leading the controversial crusade for an international ivory ban. Leakey’s most memorable moment in the
limelight came in July 1989, when he and Moi dramatized their campaign to ban the export of ivory from Kenya–setting an example for the world–by burning an 18-foot-high pyramid of tusks in Nairobi National Park.
It was a great ride while it lasted; then it all collapsed with a crash. Last June came the plane disaster, which weakened Leakey physically and provided his political enemies with an opportunity. On December 23 they struck. William ole Ntimama, Kenya’s flamboyant Minister for Local Government and a member of parliament for the Masai pastoralists, began accusing the director of
imperiously running the KWS as a one-man show and valuing Kenya’s wildlife more than its people. “Leakey has disregarded our human rights and upheld the rights of animals to kill us,” Ntimama thundered in the Kenyan media. On January 7, 25 county council leaders–most of them dependent on Ntimama for political and financial backing–attacked Leakey in chorus on unspecified charges
of “racism, arrogance, and corruption.” Leakey’s putative boss, Minister of Tourism and Wildlife Noah Katana Ngala, then launched an investigation into “mismanagement” at the KWS. All of Kenya was riveted by the feud, particularly the clash between Leakey and Ntimama, two hugely charismatic figures who appeared to be locked in a fight to the finish. The popular Kenyan magazine
The Weekly Review put photographs of both men on its cover, along with the legend, “When Two Elephants Collide.”
Leakey had left for his vacation home on Kenya’s Lamu Island on December 12, well before the storm broke, and he remained largely out of touch. “I have a policy on holiday to never read the papers,” he says. “I get extremely annoyed when people break into my holidays with bad news. I simply didn’t follow what was happening.” But he returned to Nairobi just after New Year’s Day,
counting on a show of presidential support that never came. On January 13, in a dramatic meeting at State House in Nairobi, a dismayed Leakey informed Moi that he planned to offer his resignation. Moi, according to sources close to both men, begged him to wait out the investigation. But the next afternoon Leakey defied him. “I remove myself from the premises of KWS,” he said at a
press conference, “and until I hear from the president, I will be at my shamba.” Nearly two months went by before Moi asked him to return, and then Leakey was back on the job just 12 days before he resigned for good. Moi soon replaced him with David Western, another prominent white Kenyan conservationist who was the East African program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation
How did Leakey rise so far, only to lose it all? Western conservationists, donors, and Leakey himself describe the showdown at the KWS as a clear-cut morality play, High Noon on the savanna, starring Leakey as the incorruptible sheriff and Ntimama as the archvillain who drove him out of town. The unique success of the KWS, Leakey’s allies claim,
made it an all but irresistible prize for Ntimama and other greedy politicians. “This is a country that has nourished corruption in the last decade,” Leakey told me over lunch last February, when he was still waiting for Moi’s decision. “KWS has become an extremely interesting possiblity for those who wish to steal public money without being caught. I knew that we would become a
In fact Leakey’s rise and fall goes much deeper than that. Beneath the opéra bouffe posturings and the clumsily orchestrated attacks, it is the story of one man’s stubborn battle with an entrenched system stagnating under the crushing weight of tribalism, government mismanagement, immense population pressure, and endemic poverty. It is also a story about Richard Leakey’s
Like many crusaders convinced of the justice of their cause, Leakey had one overriding flaw, a sense of invincibility that ultimately undid him. He flaunted his influence. He set up his own phantom government. He aroused the jealousy of powerful enemies. He cultivated deep-pocketed donors at the expense of alienating African villagers. And gradually he allowed his foes to
outmaneuver him. “If you think you can set up an alternate power structure, you’re dead in this country,” says one veteran Kenyan politician, a member of Moi’s inner circle. “Leakey was vocal about it, and he laid himself open for the world to blow him away.” If Leakey was the victim of his success, as he and his supporters insist, he was also very much a victim of himself.
Richard Leakey has always considered himself as much an African as those who have tried to ostracize him. The three Leakey brothers–Jonathan, the oldest, Richard, and Philip–grew up in Nairobi, where they attended the private Duke of York School and spent holidays joining their parents on paleontological digs around Lake Victoria and Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Their formative
years in the 1950s were a stormy time in Kenya, a period dominated by the birth of African nationalism and the rise of the bloody Mau Mau insurgency, and the Leakey boys developed a strong patriotism that would shape their careers. While their classmates retreated to England during vacations, or to their sprawling Great Rift Valley estates, Richard and his brothers lived in tents
in the bush, became fluent in Swahili, and spent nearly all of their time with the black workers on their parents’ field expeditions. Leakey has recalled being spat upon by his white Duke of York classmates and taunted by them as a “lover of niggers.” “We were different,” says Philip, 44, a former politician who in 1992 was defeated for reelection to what would have been his
fourth term in the Kenyan parliament, now a businessman in Nairobi. “We grew up in an environment where our father was considered far more African than European. We were misfits among our white peers because we identified more with all Kenyans than they did.”
Even as a teenager, Richard was a serious and motivated individual, worshipful of his parents but intensely competitive with them. “He never did things young people do,” says Philip. “At 17 he was an old man, smoking his pipe. I think he missed out on a chunk of his life.” In 1964 the 19-year-old Leakey struck pay dirt on his first independent dig, at Lake Natron in Tanzania,
where he discovered a 1.4-million-year-old human jawbone. That early success helped persuade him to skip college and devote himself full-time to paleontology. In 1968 he received a $25,000 National Geographic Society grant to conduct research on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Just three years later he achieved global prominence when his team unearthed a
well-preserved 1.9-million-year-old skull of Homo habilis, an early hominid first discovered by his parents. “There was tremendous jealousy, an I’ll-show-you going on there,” says one intimate. “It made him brutal in some of his attitudes and his relationships with others.”
Leakey’s fame grew with a series of books and television documentaries, but his career was characterized by repeated fallings-out with everyone from colleagues to his father and Philip. The Kenyan-born son of British missionaries, Louis Leakey had always identified with both Kenya and England, even working for British intelligence during the Mau Mau rebellion, and this was a
source of conflict with his Africanized son. Once, after Louis sent fossil specimens to an English firm to have plastic moldings made because he didn’t think Kenyans were up to the job, Richard sabotaged the operation and hired Kenyan workers instead. The American paleontologist Donald Johanson, in his book Lucy’s Child, describes Leakey as a
litigious, ferociously proprietary figure who flew into a rage after Johanson challenged his theories about the origins of man. (According to Philip Leakey, Johanson published, without permission, private conversations he had had with Leakey while a guest in Leakey’s home. “Johanson was way out of line,” says Philip.) As for the brothers’ relationship, for years Richard and Philip
have nurtured a mutual dislike born of sibling rivalry and Philip’s unqualified support of the ruling Kenya African National Union party. Philip says diplomatically, “There’s not a great deal of interaction. But we always support each other at times of crisis.” In fact, Philip in 1979 donated a kidney to Richard, thus saving his life. The oldest brother, Jonathan, lives near Lake
Baringo north of Nairobi, exports toads to laboratories around the world, and has little contact with either Philip or Richard.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Leakey cemented his standing as a Kenyan patriot. As chairman of the private, nonprofit East African Wildlife Society, and as head of the government-run Kenya Museums, he shook up the entrenched white power structure by opening up the ranks to black Africans. Ironically, one of his close acquaintances at the EAWS was William ole Ntimama, a member of
the board of trustees who was then regarded, says new KWS director David Western, an erstwhile member of the organization, “as an up-and-coming Masai with a dedication to wildlife.”
But Leakey’s tenure at the EAWS was marred by criticism. In 1981 Western quit in frustration, accusing the organization of keeping quiet while poaching veered out of control. Western says that Leakey may have been afraid to rock the boat politically. “Immediately after independence, the Society had taken on African corruption, which was an intensely political move–whites
blowing the whistle on blacks,” says Western. “When Leakey took over, it should have been extremely vocal. It was the only local organization that could have said something and gotten away with it.”
By the mid-1980s, the crisis in Kenya’s game parks had escalated out of control. The trouble had begun in 1976, when Kenya National Parks, an independent organization with its own board and administration, was merged with the government-run Kenya Game Department, which was in charge of controlling animals outside the reserves. The Game Department’s chief warden, John Mutinda,
became director of the resulting Wildlife Conservation and Management Department. He was a reputedly corrupt figure who oversaw an international poaching ring with links as far away as Hong Kong; no sooner did he gain control of Kenya’s national parks than he proceeded to plunder them and fill the ranks of the department with crooked administrators and wardens. Between 1976 and
1988, under Mutinda and his successors, Kenya’s elephant population dropped by 85 percent, according to KWS wardens. By then the land of Out of Africa was well on its way to becoming just another Third World hellhole, and tourism had dropped off drastically.
Moi woke up to the disaster in 1988, bringing Leakey in as director of the WCMD soon thereafter and changing the department by January 1990 into the Kenya Wildlife Service. The KWS was to be run along the lines of the old Kenya National Parks, with its own budgeting responsibilities and board of trustees. But there were built-in ambiguities from the start: The KWS was nominally
independent but would need to obtain final approval for any major expenditure from both the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife and the Department of the Treasury. Leakey was fully aware of the potential limitations to the KWS’s autonomy. Later this would be a major source of friction, but for the time being, Leakey’s overseers seemed compliant, and he decided to accept the status
quo. “There were a lot of gaps,” he says. “Everything depended on the goodwill of the ministries. But we decided to operate with the deficient legislation. Once we got up and running, we could go back to parliament with new legislation and enshrine all the changes we made for perpetuity.”
Although Leakey’s term as chairman of the EAWS had been marked by an unwillingness to stir controversy, all that changed suddenly in 1988–after Moi went public with Kenya’s poaching problems. Using his chairmanship of the EAWS as a bully pulpit, Leakey attacked Minister of Tourism and Wildlife George Muhoho for belatedly recognizing the seriousness of the damage. (Muhoho
retorted by chiding Leakey for his “cheeky white mentality.”) From his first days as director of the KWS, Leakey demonstrated a swashbuckling, larger-than-life personality that seemed ideally matched to the high-profile world of wildlife management in Kenya–focal point not only for tourism in Africa, but also for the international conservation movement. “Leakey came in, summoned
the wardens, and said, ‘I know 75 percent of you are crooks and poachers. You are all going,'” remembers Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s preeminent elephant researchers, whose 1988 count of elephants in Tsavo National Park was the first to scientifically document the wanton destruction of the herds. “His first year, he was constantly running, running, running. His
ambitions were enormous.”
Leakey thought big, but he initially made do with little: In addition to a $700,000 World Bank grant and a Kenyan government subsidy of several million dollars that funded consultant fees and staff salaries, in the first year he depended on about $1 million in private donations. To improve the morale of his rangers, he earmarked the donations for higher salaries, Land Rovers,
new uniforms, antimalarial drugs, better housing, and perhaps most important, automatic rifles. Then he executed Moi’s controversial shoot-on-sight policy against the poaching armies that roamed the parks. The intent was to build the best-armed, most lethal wildlife security force in Africa, a policy that opened him up to charges of brutality.
In the first year, 50 poachers were killed, as well as 15 rangers. But Leakey’s defenders say the full-scale war was justified, given the firepower and organization of the largely Somali poachers.”These guys proved as formidable as the guerrillas who faced American troops in Mogadishu,” says Douglas-Hamilton. Indeed, things had gotten so bad around Tsavo National Park, near the
Somali border, that Moi sent troops in with a few helicopter gunships to confront the poachers, and he dispatched the GSU, an elite praetorian guard that normally served as an urban riot-control squad, into the adjacent Galana Ranch, which was being used as a sanctuary by poaching squads. But Leakey resisted suggestions that he bring in foreign troops to train his rangers. “People
thought, ‘It’s so helpless, let’s bring in a special training group,’ but Leakey said, ‘We don’t need them,'” says Douglas-Hamilton. “It was a matter of common sense, leadership, and morale.”
Leakey’s critics say that he grabbed too much credit for curbing poaching in Kenya. In one respect he did get lucky: A month after he assumed control of the KWS, the Ivory Trade Review Group, a nongovernment panel of economists, wildlife experts, and scientists, started by Western, issued an alarming report that persuaded the United States, Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong to ban
ivory imports. Prices tumbled, depriving poachers of much of their financial incentive. But Leakey’s masterful use of publicity, including the ivory-burning ceremony, did give momentum to passage of a global ivory ban, which ensured the collapse of the market. Says Western, “He dramatized the willingness of one African government to go the whole distance.” The ban was passed by
the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in October 1989 over the strenuous objections of conservationists in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia, who believed that they were being penalized to save nations that were unable to police themselves.
After Leakey’s initial flush of success, the dam broke. The European Economic Community was the first major foreign government lender to come forward with an aid package. Wealthy individuals from his paleontological research days and a newer set of wildlife-minded American philanthropists flooded the KWS with cash. Part of what gave Leakey such international cachet is that he
lives life on a grander scale than the average civil servant, with his waterfront villa on Lamu Island and a 50-acre ranch in the Rift Valley. Leakey was spending about a quarter of his time outside Kenya, wooing wealthy contributors from New York to Los Angeles. “A donation of $1 million in that first year was worth $10 million later on,” says Robert Bensted-Smith, KWS policy and
planning adviser since early 1990. “It was a critical boost to morale.” In 1992, the World Bank would come through with a loan of $60.5 million over five years for rehabilitation of the national parks under the so-called Protected Areas and Wildlife Service (PAWS) project, and an additional $82.5 million for the project would be pledged by the United States, Japan, Germany, Great
Britain, and the Netherlands. Gate receipts at Kenya’s national parks tripled between 1989 and 1992.
Yet Leakey’s tenure at the KWS wasn’t all smooth sailing. One of his first acts, in the days just before he officially took on his duties, was to publicly endorse Moi’s suggestion that an estimated $100 million worth of fencing be built around the national parks. Leakey later claimed that he was misinterpreted, but his statements astonished conservationists, as they appeared to
overlook the migratory patterns of wildebeests, zebras, and other animals. “Richard was unbelievably naive. He came out with this plan, and I said, ‘You’re crazy,'” says Western, who remains critical of many of Leakey’s policies. “Richard quickly backed off and claimed he’d never made those remarks.” The only solution to the escalating conflict between man and beast, Western felt,
was to provide incentives for landowners near parks to support wildlife-related tourism, a strategy that Leakey later embraced. But in those early days, says Western, “His attitude was, ‘There’s no place for people inside or wildlife outside.'” It was total protectionism, reflecting a commitment to wildlife that, it seemed to many in Kenya, ignored human economics.
Beneath the charming exterior, Leakey ruled the KWS with an iron grip. He was both an able administrator who rallied the troops and a martinet who tolerated no questioning of his authority. Though he didn’t have a college degree, the director often insisted that he be addressed as Dr. Leakey on the basis of six honorary doctorates from American and British colleges. And Leakey
opened himself up to charges of favoritism in his hiring practices. “Richard lives the bwana life,” says a source. “He and [his wife] Meave have an understanding–or at least reached one after the crash, when all of Richard’s ‘friends’ came to his bedside.” One of the targets is Joyce Poole, an American scientist who until recently ran the KWS’s elephant program and who is widely
rumored to have an intimate friendship with the director. “Leakey appointed these women of his as conservationists,” says Ntimama. “This young Joyce Poole was one of his experts.”
William ole Ntimama’s lushly carpeted office in central Nairobi is decorated in wine red and is dominated by a half-dozen huge armchairs and a sprawling sofa big enough for two people lying head to toe. Two large framed black-and-white photographs of Moi hang on the walls, along with a campaign poster for KANU and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One touch-tone
and two rotary telephones sit on a table beside the sofa; whenever a phone rings, Ntimama picks up one receiver after another until he gets the right one. On this late afternoon in February, with dusty red drapes blocking out the sinking sun, he is on the phone constantly, sprinkling his rapid-fire conversations in Swahili and Masai with one word I can understand: Leakey. Leakey.
Ntimama leans back on the sofa, cross-legged, as a secretary pours him tea. “You know, I am always happy to talk about Leakey,” he says, smiling broadly. “It’s my favorite subject these days.” A helmet of gray hair frames a fleshy face whose most striking characteristic is a missing front tooth, extracted in a Masai circumcision ritual when he was a teenager. He wears a flecked
gray suit with beige shoulder patches, a peach-colored shirt that strains over an ample belly, and a forest-patterned tie. “Richard Leakey is a bully,” he says between phone calls. “He ran over people like a rogue elephant. The man proves that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
During his three decades in Kenyan politics, Ntimama, 64, has earned a reputation as a shrewd and ruthless operator. Born and raised in the town of Narok, on the wildlife-rich savanna that runs through much of southern Kenya, Ntimama in 1974 became chairman of the Narok County Council, which manages the Masai Mara, the jewel of Kenya’s game parks. His critics, including Leakey,
charge that he has used the position to enrich himself improperly. They claim that Ntimama and fellow council members skimmed off the bulk of the Mara’s gate receipts and that Ntimama granted concessions to safari-lodge builders inside the park in exchange for generous quid pro quos. (Ntimama insists that the Narok council is “one of the most honest in the country.”) He owns
substantial stakes in Governor’s Camp, the most expensive lodge in the reserve. After a transitory alliance with one of Moi’s political archenemies in the 1970s, Ntimama became one of the president’s most ardent supporters and has steadily gained in influence. In 1988 Moi appointed him Minister for Local Government, making him responsible for overseeing all county and city
councils in Kenya.
Ntimama’s career, his critics say, epitomizes the murky world of Kenyan politics: shifting alliances, inside deals, and political cronyism. Moi, a wily survivor from the small Rift Valley Kalenjin tribe who has kept himself in power for 16 years, maintains the loyalty of politicians from various ethnic groups by allocating them a cut of all the resources available to a powerful
head of state: major stakes in companies, exclusive import licenses, kickbacks on contracts. (Moi himself is alleged to have stashed a $2 billion fortune in overseas bank accounts.) The system has proven disastrous for Kenya; the increasing theft of public funds and the bloated and inefficient government sector have discouraged Western investment in recent years and sapped the
once-vigorous Kenyan economy.
Moi has demonstrated a willingness to go to any lengths to perpetuate his power. In the 1980s he enacted constitutional amendments making Kenya a one-party state and abolishing lifetime tenure for judges. One of his ministers, Nicholas Biwott, was forced to resign after he was implicated in the 1990 murder of the foreign minister, Robert Ouko, who had threatened to go public
with evidence of corruption. The same year, gunmen allegedly hired by the government assaulted Kenneth Matiba, a former cabinet minister who had become an outspoken Moi opponent and later an opposition candidate for president. In 1991 Western donors, especially the United States, pressured Moi into holding democratic elections; after warning about the tribal chaos that would
result from a multiparty system, Moi associates turned loose armed Kalenjin gangs in the Rift Valley to drive out members of the opposition Kikuyu tribe. Ntimama himself gained notoriety last year for inciting these so-called tribal clashes: He publicly spurred his Masai tribesmen to attack Kikuyu with spears and daggers, forcing 8,000 of them to flee. Ntimama claims the violence
was justified because Kikuyus were squatting on Masai property. “Why shouldn’t one Kenyan group go to war against another to protect its land?” he says.
Leakey harbored few illusions about the system in which he became a major player. But he managed–for a while–to have the best of both worlds. On one level he was a consummate insider, enjoying better access to Moi than some members of the cabinet. But Leakey adroitly avoided the taint of the inner circle. “I was never seen as a member of the court,” he said shortly before his
resignation. “I didn’t go to airports to see people come and go. I do my business and ten minutes later I’m gone. I don’t believe in the system of patronage, and I never have. If there is anybody in public life in this country who has had persistent arguments with the head of state for his entire time in office, it is me. We have maintained a friendship, but it’s a distant
With the president’s support, Leakey felt free to take an antagonistic approach toward top Moi associates. In an effort to unshackle the KWS from the slow-moving bureaucracy, Leakey fought constantly to free budgets and loans from oversight. At the same time, he remained dependent on government subsidies to keep the KWS afloat. The salaries he paid his handpicked staff of
administrators–he called them consultants to avoid paying low civil-service wages–infuriated other key officials. “Richard had 40 guys making three times more than cabinet ministers,” says one insider.
In fact, according to the government report on the KWS, 37 employees were paid as consultants with funds from Western donors. Their salaries ranged from $1,000 to $8,500 a month; even Leakey’s personal assistant earned $2,000, an extremely high salary for a Kenyan civil servant. (According to the report, Leakey paid himself only $342 per month; he says that he didn’t need more
because he is able to live comfortably by independent means.)
Leakey further angered many top ministers by blocking their efforts to exploit resources in the parks. In 1991, Minister of Energy Nicholas Biwott demanded that Leakey allow the government to build a gas pipeline and access road through Nairobi National Park; Leakey refused, and one top KWS administrator recalls, “There were shouts, threats–it was a real scene.” The drama
ended after Moi sided with Leakey and asked Biwott to find an alternative route that bypassed the park. Later, when Minister of Tourism and Wildlife Ngala tried to open a chunk of Tsavo National Park to mining, Leakey vetoed the attempt. When the minister pointed out that Leakey worked for him, Leakey replied, “I don’t answer to you. I answer only to the president.” It was a
humiliation that Ngala would not forget. “You have to take a certain political stance,” Leakey says. “You get good people because you pay them well. You make a corporation that hums, and that is completely different from the blinkered, narrow, civil-servant approach which predominates in the Third World.”
As long as Leakey maintained Moi’s trust, he was free to act as he wished. But the honeymoon ended in 1992, after Moi reluctantly agreed to hold multiparty elections. Although Leakey is a member of the KANU party, he began cozying up to the opposition Democratic Party, in which his 19-year-old daughter was heavily involved. Its platform called for fiscal responsibility and
accused Moi’s government of corruption. Members of Moi’s inner circle gleefully seized on Leakey’s new alliance to undermine his standing with the president. “The [election period] is when we began to question his loyalty,” Ntimama says. According to sources close to the president, Moi blamed Leakey for the constant rebukes he was hearing from Western donors, and granted him less
access. And Ntimama, whose constituency included both the Masai in the Rift Valley and most of Kenya’s other pastoralist tribes, eagerly fed Moi’s suspicions. The Masai leader had his own reasons for wanting Leakey out: For more than a decade, a dispute had been simmering between Ntimama and the federal government over who should control the Masai Mara. When Leakey took over, the
tug-of-war began in earnest, and the onetime allies soon turned into bitter enemies.
The Masai Mara stands supremely alone among Kenya’s more than four dozen game parks. Situated on the northern edge of the Serengeti Plain on the western shoulder of the Rift Valley, it is a vast, varied ecosystem of soaring escarpments, hippo- and crocodile-filled rivers, barren sand flats, and gently undulating savanna speckled with spindly acacia trees. Its 590 square miles
support some of the richest herds of wildlife on earth: elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards, zebras, warthogs, baboons, a dozen species of impala, and wildebeests, whose mass migration north across the plains from Tanzania each summer forms one of Africa’s great wild spectacles.
One February day I visited the Masai Mara escorted by Willie Roberts, a red-haired, freckle-faced former KWS warden who lives in a private tent camp on a Masai ranch north of the reserve. We bounced in his Land Cruiser on a red-earth track across the plains, green and vibrant after recent rains. As we skirted a range of granite hills to the west, dozens of elephants browsed in
a tangle of foliage. Each turn brought a new marvel: six thickly maned lions lazing along the shoulder, huge herds of antelope, and a long black creature slithering in the dirt. “A spitting cobra,” Roberts said. “That’s a good sign. It means it’s going to rain.”
At dusk we arrived at a compound of low-slung cement-block buildings in the bush at the Mara’s edge. On the porch of the biggest house we were welcomed by Lerionka ole Ntutu, a white-haired and large-bellied Masai chief in his seventies, wearing a thick wool pullover and wool pants. We sat in leather armchairs in a Persian-carpeted living room dimly illuminated by flickering
fluorescent lights. Photographs of some of the chief’s 60 children and ten wives were taped to the faded yellow walls. Ntutu’s youngest wife served us warm Tusker beers and soda as he talked about the complex relationships among the Masai, the Narok County Council, and the KWS.
The Masai landowners around the park, he said, harbor deep animosity toward the council, which collects more than $1 million in tourist fees annually–including money from game lodges on private Masai property–and returns virtually nothing to the Masai, despite its pledges over the years to pump money into surrounding communities. The chief and his fellow landowners recently
sued the council, with the encouragement of the KWS, and in late 1993 won a settlement of tens of thousands of dollars. “The Narok County Council is deceiving us,” Ntutu said as his five-year-old son played in his lap. “It is like a lion that eats everything and doesn’t even spit anything back for its cubs.
“We need new roads, we need hospitals. The nearest one is 100 kilometers away,” he said. He warned that the Masai population around the Mara was growing increasingly restive about the wildlife that often trampled and ate their crops. “The animals migrate to this area, and you have collisions of species. Unless you teach the people that they can derive benefits from wildlife,
the animals will be killed. We want to preserve this heritage for our children. We don’t want to see lions only in photos.”
Ntutu’s distrust of the Narok County Council is shared by Leakey. Since his first days at the KWS, Leakey has made no secret of the fact that he considers the council ill-equipped to manage the Mara, the only major reserve not under control of the KWS. He has criticized it repeatedly for corruption, unrestrained building of lodges inside the park, poor road maintenance, and a
lax attitude toward cattle grazing in the reserve. Given local landowners’ suspicions toward the council, Leakey figured that they’d back him when he launched a campaign in 1989 to take over management of the park. But Leakey failed to anticipate the pride that the Masai take in the Mara–and their resistance to outside intervention.
At the beginning he tried cajoling Masai leaders like Ntutu. He got nowhere. Then Leakey made what many consider a grievous error: He resorted to threats, warning a group of Masai leaders, including council members, that the park would share none of the KWS’s donor support unless they agreed to a management contract. “Leakey said, ‘You’re not going to get a cent, and I’m going
to ruin the reputation of this place, and you don’t know how to run it,'” says one conservationist who has worked in the Mara for years. “Leakey thought he would bring them to their knees and they would come back begging.” During one meeting, in which Leakey warned that he was sending a KWS senior administrator to work in the Mara, the Masai reacted with stunned disbelief. Days
later, says the conservationist, “We lost our first rhino since 1984. The Masai left it with both horns on in protest.” Faced with growing Masai intransigence, Leakey became overtly hostile. “Leakey told me, ‘I can’t afford to be compassionate toward the Masai,'” remembers Western. “I said, ‘The day when you’re compassionate to wildlife and not to people, you’ve lost the
Leakey and Ntimama had been waging their own battle from the start. At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport one afternoon in 1989, the two men stood on the tarmac on one of the rare occasions when Leakey greeted Moi on his return from a state visit. Leakey restated his intention to take over the Mara. “I said the British couldn’t control the Mara, and it won’t happen now,” Ntimama
remembers. “He said, ‘Bill, if you don’t agree, I’m going to ask the president to sack you.'” When Moi began to appear sympathetic to Leakey’s campaign, Ntimama played his trump card. According to one insider, “Ntimama went to the president and said, ‘If you let Richard Leakey take over the reserve, I’ll pull out [from your political support] all the county councils that control
game reserves in Kenya.'” (Four other councils administer parks in the country.) Moi sided with Ntimama.
Leakey’s falling out with the Masai coincided with mounting unhappiness in rural Kenya over a KWS-sponsored revenue-sharing scheme called the Community Wildlife Service, initiated in 1991. Supported by a $7 million grant from the United States, the CWS is supposed to contribute 25 percent of national park gate receipts to villages in the form of projects such as cattle tick
baths, schools, and clinics. In effect, it’s a bribe to keep farmers from killing wildlife–until, Leakey says, they can be persuaded to refocus their energies on more game-friendly vocations, such as running lodges or tourist camps. But the project has had significant problems because of budget constraints at the KWS, a sharp falloff in tourist revenue last year, and confusion
about how the money is to be distributed. And its failures played right into Ntimama’s hands.
“Where Leakey failed most was in his refusal to interact with people who live with wildlife,” Ntimama claims. “He refused to discuss their problems. He refused to meet with or listen to them.” In fact, several Masai leaders I talked to in a farming village called Namelok, on the outskirts of Amboseli National Park, said that Leakey met with them four times since 1990 and was
the most accessible wildlife director they’ve ever had. Nevertheless, according to John P. Mariuka, the community’s secretary, Namelok has received only one payout from the KWS in three years: 2.8 million shillings, about $50,000, in 1993. That was a tiny percentage of Amboseli’s gate receipts, which totaled at least $1 million last year–and, the leaders said, it was hardly
adequate to compensate for damage to crops and livestock. “We accommodate 80 percent of Amboseli’s wildlife, and we suffer because of it,” Mariuka told me.
Leakey was also a convenient target for other complaints whipped up by Ntimama and his local allies. Around the Masai Mara, rogue elephants have killed 35 people since 1990, and the number of deaths is doubling annually; near Tsavo National Park, six people have been trampled this year alone. The Kenyan government has no effective mechanism for providing compensation in such
cases, and even conservationists say Leakey has dodged responsibility. “There has to be a response to local people who are losing their lives to elephants,” says an influential Nairobi conservationist. “Not, ‘Go file a claim in Nairobi and if you’re lucky you’ll get 30,000 shillings [$450].'” Because of the KWS’s failure to respond quickly, Ntimama and local leaders were able to
fan the perception that the KWS was insensitive to human concerns. “Leakey is more pro-animal than pro-people,” says David Maitumo, a Masai researcher with Wildlife Conservation International in Amboseli. “He rushes to an animal’s defense against poachers, but not when people are killed.” Ntimama has had a field day with the conflict. “Leakey wants these animals to kill us,” he
says. “He thinks it’s part of the panorama, the natural balancing of the species.”
Early on the morning of June 2, 1993, Leakey and four passengers took off from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport for a business trip to Lake Naivasha in his single-engine Cessna 206, a gift from a wealthy American businessman. Seven and a half minutes out of Nairobi, the engine suddenly lost power. “It seemed to surge as if it were picking up again,” remembers Leakey. “But then it was
clear there was no more power, and I was going to come down.” To this day, he has no idea what happened. The Cessna began gliding to earth, 1,500 feet below. “I thought I could make it into a paddock, but there was a school and houses, and I was extremely worried about hitting people–and trees,” he says. “I told the others we were going to crash; I talked to the tower twice. Then
we hit the ground–but I couldn’t get past one big mango tree, which bent the plane backward.” Leakey has no memory of the impact, which shattered most of the bones in his legs and ankles. “They say that I was very cogent, giving phone numbers and instructions,” he says. “Next thing I knew, I was in bed at a Nairobi hospital.”
For ten days Leakey lay in terrible pain as his doctors tried to check advancing infections in his legs. (Moi was among the first visitors he received, followed by the head of the Democratic Party.) Then septicemia set in, and Leakey was rushed to England on the advice of doctors. At Nottingham University Hospital, outside London, it was determined that the damage was
irreparable. “The left leg was insensate. The nerves and blood vessels were basically gone,” he says. “I would never have any feeling, which would have made walking difficult. It would just have been a nuisance. So the leg came off. We went on with treatment for the right leg. There was a gap of two inches of missing bone. To fix it they would have had to shorten the leg and graft
bone from the pelvis. Then it became clear that they would have had to pin the ankle, so I would have had no flexibility, a permanent limp, and probably hip arthritis in later years. Everyone was saying, ‘Your artificial leg is going to be your good leg.’ I said, ‘Well, why can’t I have two?'” After several operations, Leakey left a London rehabilitation center on his prostheses,
and he discarded his walking sticks a month after that.
Leakey arrived back in Kenya in October, only to find the KWS in complete disarray. “Richard was out of the system for four months, which wasn’t good,” says a government insider. “If you want to be a player, you have to be there.” Indeed, during his absence, Leakey’s old nemesis, Ngala, had begun cracking down on KWS expenditures. After the World Bank loan came through, Leakey
had expanded KWS operations: New roads were built through the parks, construction began on a $1.5 million headquarters in Nairobi, planes and new vehicles were purchased. By late 1993 the KWS was collecting about $1 million a month in gate receipts, but it needed millions more to pay contractors and equipment dealers. It would requisition World Bank money from the treasury, but
the Kenyan officials would delay acting for months. The stated reason was that the KWS had already far exceeded its spending limits for the 1993-1994 fiscal year; Leakey says the government refused to take into account that the 100 percent devaluation of the Kenya shilling against the U.S. dollar had effectively slashed the operating budget in half. “It was bad will,” he says.
“And I wasn’t around to pull things together.”
Last fall Leakey requested a meeting with Moi. He asked to be freed completely from oversight by the Ministries of Tourism and the Treasury. Surprisingly, given the chill, Moi granted him the exemption. In the meantime, say critics, Ntimama went into overdrive, arm-twisting county council leaders across Kenya for help in his incipient anti-Leakey campaign, even dangling the
enticing prospect of council management of Kenya’s national parks–a scenario that naturally disturbs Western conservationists and donors–while lining up their support. In December, after a series of meetings with Ngala and other top officials, Moi abruptly withdrew the special status he had granted the KWS. Ntimama may have taken that as a signal that Leakey had fallen
permanently out of favor. Two days before Christmas, he fired his opening salvo.
On March 11, eight weeks after offering Moi his resignation, Leakey returned triumphantly to his office at the KWS. Optimism filled the air. The World Bank and other Western donors–which had hinted at a total cutoff of the $143 million loan program for the PAWS project–exuberantly expressed confidence in the service’s future. Morale soared among Leakey’s employees, who
greeted him with a standing ovation. Even Ntimama swallowed his pride and announced that Leakey’s return was good for Kenya. It was thought in some quarters that Leakey had emerged from this near-debacle stronger than ever, and that Moi–now that he’d gauged the depth of Leakey’s support in the West–would possibly give him more control over the KWS.
But there were danger signs. Moi hadn’t even bothered to telephone Leakey to tell him he had his job back; Leakey heard the news on the radio. The president left unresolved many of the charges that Ntimama and others had raised. And he ignored Leakey’s most important demand: that he no longer report to Ngala. “If your political master has accused you of corruption and
mismanagement and has bad-mouthed you around every corner, it’s fair to expect that the person vilified would not be able to work under this man,” Leakey stated emphatically during our February lunch. “I don’t think it would happen anywhere. It’s human nature. You may say I should be bigger than that, but I’m not.”
Less than a week after Leakey resumed his duties, his worst fears proved justified. On March 19 he received the report on the investigation into the KWS. Among its more bizarre findings, it said that Leakey constituted a security risk to the Kenyan government and recommended that the power of his 1,500-man armed force be drastically curtailed. The same week, Leakey received a
letter from Moi delivering the coup de grâce, a series of stunning directives, subject to approval by the KWS board of trustees: Moi called for 75 percent of all KWS resources to be redirected to projects outside the national parks and for antipoaching responsibilities to be removed from the service and placed in the hands of the Kenyan police.
On March 23 Leakey called a press conference, denounced the new directives, and said that he was leaving the KWS for good. “I cannot see how I can perform my duties adequately as newly defined,” he said. “The KWS dream of a self-financing, publicly owned but independent conservation authority does not seem viable.” Ngala, on behalf of the government, then released a statement
that closed the door on possible reconciliation. Leakey “puts himself at par with the president and speaks as if they were equals,” it read. “Leakey exhibited an acute lack of respect for the institution of the presidency by revealing the contents of a confidential letter addressed to him by the president. This is a criminal act by a senior civil servant.” One week after that, Moi
named David Western to succeed Leakey.
Moi’s directives were indeed a radical departure from the original terms of Leakey’s employment. The demand that 75 percent of revenues be shifted outside of the parks, wildlife experts say, is outrageous and directly contradicts the four-volume KWS policy document, known as the Zebra Book, agreed to by the board of trustees, donors, and the government. The more ominous demand
that the police take over antipoaching duties, says one wildlife expert, underscores the paranoia among some Kenyan officials that Leakey was building a private army with superior weapons and intelligence-gathering capabilities. Leakey “was a man who was in the process of building an evil empire,” Ntimama said in a session of parliament. “I am glad that he is gone forever.”
Whether or not the KWS will try to function under the new directives– or challenge them–now depends largely upon Western, 50, who bears some striking similarities to the man he is succeeding. Like Leakey, he is a white African, the son of an Englishman who came to East Africa during World War II with the military and settled in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Jonah Western, as
everyone calls him, returned to England with his mother two years after his father, a part-time game warden, was killed by a rogue elephant in 1958. But his love of wildlife drew him back to Africa six years later. He earned a doctorate in zoology and ecology at the University of Nairobi and then began 27 years of field research on human-animal relations in savanna ecosystems. He
developed into one of Africa’s most highly regarded conservationists and is arguably the world’s leading authority on what is commonly called community-based conservation. Hence he is likely to pursue a more integrated vision of wildlife and people than his predecessor. “I’m extremely sad to see Richard go, but nobody can deny that Western is a true conservationist,” says
Douglas-Hamilton. “He’ll stop everything from falling apart.” Indeed, Western’s quick appointment heartened many Leakey supporters, who had worried that control of the KWS would fall into the hands of a government stooge.
It’s unclear how the new director will be received by KWS employees, however. Most of them were passionately loyal to Leakey–at one point, two-thirds vowed to quit if he were forced out permanently–and they’re not likely to warm up easily to any successor. According to the KWS’s Bensted-Smith, a few employees left when Leakey did (among them Joyce Poole, whose contract ended
in March) and more are looking for jobs elsewhere. “I don’t think anyone could be welcomed in with open arms after what happened, but people want it to work,” he says. “You have to hope, but we’re just waiting to see.” Despite Western’s enthusiasm for wildlife, he has a vastly different style from Leakey. “He’s secretive, he plays his cards close to the vest, and he’s going to
have to do a lot to build up trust,” says one conservationist who knows him well. “You never know quite what he’s up to when he’s playing politics.”
One of Western’s first priorities will be to clarify the terms of his employment; he says he’s been assured by Moi that he’ll be free of the impediments that Leakey faced. (Moi has issued a statement to the press confirming that antipoaching patrols will remain under the KWS.) “The government will give Western a free hand to operate in the department,” says Ntimama. “We’ve
declared a cease-fire, a permanent truce, to give Western a good chance to work. Let’s just say that we had to clip a few of Richard Leakey’s wings.” Western will also focus on tackling the resurgent poaching problem. Conservationists report an alarming increase in elephant killings during the last three months in the Masai Mara, Lamu, and Laikipia on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
“The poachers, the bandits, and the ivory traders are all out there waiting to exploit any weakness,” says Douglas-Hamilton, “and it’s vital that the antipoaching and monitoring be kept up.” Western will also have to contend with growing tensions in rural areas between wildlife and villagers; in the days following Leakey’s resignation, Ntimama went on the stump in Narok County,
urging his tribesmen to kill any elephants and buffalo that endanger their lives.
Despite the fallout, Leakey says he remains certain that he made the right decisions in all respects. If he alienated some Kenyans in pursuit of his agenda, if he ran roughshod over the Masai and the Narok County Council, if he frayed egos or incited jealousies, it was all the inevitable cost of saving Kenya in the long run, he reasons. “The bottom line is that wildlife is not
only an ethical and aesthetic concern, but an economic and strategic concern,” he says. “It’s our oil. My mandate was to make sure that wildlife survives into the next century, not because they are cuddly, warm, and furry animals, but because of the importance of tourism. We’ll go belly-up certainly without wildlife. We may go belly-up anyway.”
He adds that he supports Western, despite past disagreements between them. “I have absolutely no ill will towards David. And I have told him both personally and in writing that he can count on my public and private support.” And if Western runs into the same interference from powerful political forces that Leakey faced? “I will back him,” he says, “and try to break them.”
As for his own immediate future, Leakey has no concrete plans. He says he’ll write another book, do some consulting for several African parks, travel a bit, enjoy his liberation from the hornet’s nest of Kenyan bureaucracy. “I’m going to take a full year to think about what to do next,” he says. “I’m in no hurry.” After passing three flight tests, he received a renewed pilot’s
license at the end of March, and he’s taken to the skies again. A good deal of his time will no doubt be spent soaring over the vast Kenyan savanna, gazing down at the regal herds of elephants, zebras, and wildebeests that are no longer his domain.
Joshua Hammer is the Nairobi bureau chief of Newsweek and a frequent contributor to the New Republic.