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Fast Talk: Dr. Richard Leakey

Richard Leakey's life has spanned careers in fossil hunting, conservation, and politics and has earned him a reputation as a straight talker who isn't afraid to make unpopular decisions. Born in Kenya in 1944 to anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, he was appointed head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 1989. There, he used tough and sometimes controversial methods to save the country's elephant population, which was being decimated by ivory poachers. He fired unscrupulous officials and organized anti-poaching units licensed to shoot on sight. A worldwide ban on the sale of ivory, spearheaded by Leakey, led to a substantial drop in price, making poaching less profitable.

In 1993, Leakey lost both legs below the knee when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed. The following year he left the KWS and formed an opposition party, Safina. President Daniel arap Moi branded him a racist, but in 1999 appointed him to reform Kenya's notoriously corrupt civil service. Leakey left the position last March. He talked with T+L recently about travel and security, wildlife preservation, and Kenya's future as a tourist destination.

1. What's the tourism situation in Kenya at the moment?
Very bad. There is an element of fear about going to Africa—about what could happen to you. But I think it's more about "Do I really want to spend the money when I'm not quite sure what the economy is doing?Do I really want to go away and find that I can't get back when there's a crisis at home?" So partly it's worries about the economy. Partly people are frightened of traveling in general. Partly they're not sure—Kenya having been hit before—whether the security is good. Kenya really has to start talking up its assets and its safety.

2. Is safety something people associate with Kenya, given the crime rate?
No, not if you're saying, "Come live in Nairobi for a year; it's a hell of a good place to go out to the discos at night." But if you want to go to the beach, see wildlife, have fun, and eat good food, then why not come to Kenya?We have wildlife and nature at its best; there's no serious competition. We do have an image problem, but tour operators have a very good sense of where tourists can go and where they shouldn't go. If you wanted to be mugged, I could tell you where to go. But I could also give you an itinerary, much like what a travel agent would give you, where the chances of your getting into trouble are remote. The one place where no one's going to attack you is in the middle of Tsavo or Amboseli or Masai Mara or Serengeti or a South African park. It's very imaginative to think that a safari will be more dangerous because of Osama bin Laden's attacks on the West.

3. Have the United States and other countries learned their lesson about buying ivory?
I don't think the sale of ivory is over, but the number of people buying it on the black market in Kenya has been reduced dramatically. The price of ivory is creeping up because of sales to Arab states, but it's still only 20 or 30 percent of what it used to be.

4. And is poaching under control?
There's a lot of meat poaching in many African countries, which is poverty-related, but commercial poaching for ivory and rhino horn seems to be under control.

5. Can you explain how community-based tourism—that is, funneling tourism revenues to local residents to encourage conservation—works?
The idea is that people living with or around wildlife need to get special gains so that they're more tolerant of conservation efforts—which I think is true. But a lot of people have tried to take it further, saying, These people have lived with wildlife for 10,000 years, their wisdom is much greater than ours, and they should be allowed to do the management. Well, that's patently nonsensical. While it's true that pastoralists such as the Masai used to live in harmony with wildlife, the demands placed on them by the modern age have fundamentally eroded this harmony. Conservation needs rules and regulations, not a traditional history.

6. Are there any positives to community-based tourism?
There are cases where some of the marginal land is now being used for tourism by the community, and they've had help setting up small lodges. That's very positive. But one needs to be hard-nosed about it and say, If the community owns the piece of land, fine. But if it's a national park and the state owns it, let's accept that the state should run it.

7. There are elections this year and President Moi is not running, because of constitutional restraints. Have you ruled out the possibility of running yourself?
I don't want to do it. There was a time when I enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of it, but when I headed up the civil service and saw how people at the very top have to operate—I was on duty 24 hours a day with a lot of responsibility—any hunger for that sort of power waned terribly quickly. It was a pain in the neck.

8. You're not given to brooding on things. Does that have something to do with paleoanthropology?
When you're interested in things that have taken place over several million years, are you less likely to be seduced by the idea that the world is going to end tomorrow? You may be right. I have a perspective that makes the now and the lifetime look rather irrelevant. As a paleoanthropologist you're looking for something, but you're not quite sure what it is, and you're not quite sure where it is—if it exists. You spend days looking for something, a fossil, and you have to be fairly philosophical about days spent with no return. And I think that can affect your attitude toward life. Patience is very much a part of my work.

9. What's the next chapter for you?
I don't know. I'm really thinking about whether I want to be involved in public life. I'd like to set up an endowment for wildlife—raise international funds that would make organizations like KWS a success. I might be able to do that where someone else might not. But I'm not sure yet; I'm really quite open-minded.

10. You're much more genial than I expected. I was led to believe that you were grumpy. Were you, at one time?
I don't think so. I don't know where this reputation came from. People say they're terrified of me, but I don't know why—I've always been a very friendly sort.

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