Richard Leakey never looked like he was going to mellow much with age. For the past 40 years he has been one of the most vital, energetic, tenacious and inflammatory figures on the African scene. When barely out of his teens, he made his name as an archaeological prodigy -- a sort of Mozart of Lake Rudolph -- and in the process very nearly beat his parents, Louis and Mary, at their own game. When he ran the Kenya Wildlife Service in the late 1980s he famously torched a 12-tonne pile of poached ivory. It was a typically unsubtle but effective gesture. The images were beamed out on network TV; the world sat up and paid attention; poaching, for a while, was stopped in its tracks. In the mid1990s he formed an opposition party in Kenya; four years later the president, Daniel arap Moi, appointed him head of the civil service.
Leakey is 62 and no longer in any kind of office. He is not as nimble as he once was, furthermore, having lost both his legs when his Cessna crashed in mysterious circumstances;
sabotage was suspected. In 1979 he lost one kidney, then last year another. He now runs on transplanted kidneys, one from his brother Philip and one from his wife Meave. In spite of his handicaps, however, he is still perfectly capable of making a nuisance of himself. If he is not tending his vineyard in the Rift Valley, he is probably giving a talk, stirring things up, usually on conservation-related matters.
I catch up with him in London on just such a mission -- to talk to the Royal Geographical Society on behalf of Save the Rhino, a wildlife charity. My wife (his niece) and I have breakfast with him in Holland Park. As I have come to expect of these Leakey breakfasts, the table talk starts with a vigorous deconstruction of the positions of various elected officials -- and warms up steadily from there. It seems the tricky question of wildlife management, which was such an important part of Leakey's past, is again very much on his mind.
'Wildlife populations in many African countries, from west to east and certainly in the centre and to a large extent in the south, are under enormous pressure, ' he says. 'Perhaps the elephants are under less pressure, because of their high-profile protection. But other species are going, starting with the ungulates, which are being taken out for bush-meat. It's like there's a vacuum cleaner, just sucking out all these animals. And, with them, all sorts of animals that are unintended victims of snaring are going, too -- a lot of the big cats are going, many of the plains game and small mammals are going. Because the cost of living is so high and the cost of beef, mutton and goat is so high, there is good money to be made from meat on the hoof that is caught by snare and sold in the market. And there just isn't any control. I think the poaching element is very, very worrying indeed.' But hang on a minute, I say, shovelling up a forkful of (I hope) non-bush bacon and struggling to remember what 'ungulate' means. Where's the Kenya Wildlife Service in all this? Not so very long ago it was a crack outfit, capable of taking on poachers who toted more ordnance than most African armies. 'I don't think KWS has the capacity to deal with the sort of poaching that's happening at all, ' Leakey says. 'Yes, they are dealing with elephant poaching, with well-armed poachers in parks. But game-meat poaching is going on unabated. The KWS is relying heavily on NGOs to provide services. And it doesn't have good relations with local communities; there is no mechanism by which local communities are benefiting, and that is something that I think needs to be addressed.' OK, so if the KWS isn't up to it, what's the alternative? 'I am more and more persuaded that the only alternative, which was never tried but which is beginning to be looked at, is to go for private management contracts, where you take an area or a national park, put it under private management on a concession basis for a fixed period of time. It is managed by the private sector; the division of revenue is between that company and the local government authority or county council. So 40 per cent of revenue goes to the county council for redistribution to schools, clinics and the rest; 30 per cent goes back into the project to keep it running; and 30 per cent goes to the private sector. That's not necessarily the formula that would be adopted, but there is one already in the Maasai Mara, the Transmara, which is doing extremely well. The local people have been benefiting, the county council seems to have been very satisfied and the management company is doing adequately well to project a longterm future. This seems to be a model that we should now be looking at for more protected areas.' Ordinary Kenyans don't always care for change, and I wonder whether this is an idea they will feel comfortable with. After all, there was a serious ballyhoo recently when the government handed over Amboseli, one of the country's biggest and best-loved national parks, to the county council and downgraded its status to that of a reserve. 'When I say the private sector could take over management, that doesn't mean there would be no role for the KWS, ' Leakey explains. 'The KWS could become a very useful regulatory authority and an oversight authority. So that if there is a lease between a wildlife area and Company X, Company X would have an obligation both to the local authority and to the state in terms of its management standards. And a new agency, which could be a reformed KWS, would play a role. It would be necessary to have such an authority for this model to work.
'At the moment it would be extremely difficult to achieve because the government is not particularly disciplined, and regulatory authorities and oversight authorities are among the best vehicles by which to enrich yourself by corruption. So this would require a lot of thought and careful choices. And there would need to be a commitment -- which is totally absent at the moment -- by the central government not constantly to micromanage something it has no business getting involved with.' More tea is poured. I ask about the weather in Nairobi -- not a trivial concern in an age of global warming and increasingly erratic drought and flooding. Are you seeing more Maasai bringing their cattle into Nairobi National Park during the longer, hotter dry season? 'What should be addressed is the question of whether any of our parks have a future if climate change impacts in the way it has been predicted it will. And the concern I have is not only within the boundaries of protected areas. The human population surrounding these protected areas will be under the same pressure.
'There will be greater demand for new land, for fuel and water resources that are dwindling because of climate change. And there will be greater pressure arising from people and animals that are in conflict with each other, with animals going out of the parks trying to get domestic forage -- corn and wheat and potatoes -- and with pastoral people going into the parks trying to get forage for their animals during the dry season.
'We are not thinking through the implications of this. I think we're in a state of denial in Africa, certainly in Kenya, about climate change and its impact on what has to be one of our principal platforms of economic growth. So, with that, and with poor infrastructure, questions of security and a growing human population, I'm very concerned about the government's policies, which amount to no policy at all for wildlife growth.' Breakfast is almost over. Fry-up, fruit and several pots of tea are all gone. Oddly enough, despite the roundly critical tone of a lot of what he has said, Leakey conveys a strong, if qualified, sense of optimism too.
'I don't think we should single out wildlife as a special case, ' he says. 'It's unlikely that people will have a good view of any badlyrun institution, whether it's health, education or tourism. What people want more than seeing a zebra is the opportunity for their kids to get a bursary. And with private-sector management you can generate far more revenue for people in areas where revenue collection is poor or there's no revenue collection at all.
'The KWS has done nothing about creating an environment where investors will want to put a lot of resources. We've got vast areas that are currently protected.
There's the area north of Lamu; the Bogoria reserve; several reserves north of Nakuru belonging to the Pokot and the Turkana, where nothing's been done;
Sibiloi's never been touched; Marsabit's never been touched. There must be 20 or so potential areas to invest in, where you can experiment. But if you can't get there by road and there are no airstrips, why do it? That's where the government's role comes in.' Leakey helps himself to a handful of the multicoloured prescription pills that are meant to keep his newest kidney happy.
He is on good form -- robust, engaged, passionate, interested in solutions as well as problems. 'I'm trying to use my experience to guide and to advise and to influence, ' he says. 'But I know from my own earlier days that advisers don't always say the sort of things that you want to hear when you ask for advice. That's par for the course, and I guess it's one of the prices you pay for getting slightly older. You are ignored more and more.' Or, as may be closer to the truth in his case, you are not.
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Source: Spectator, The London