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Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa's Natural Treasures

by Richard Leakey, Virginia Morell
319 pages,
ISBN: 0312206267


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A Political Animal
by Christopher Ondaatje

Anyone who has read John Le Carre's recent novel The Constant Gardner, will get a frightening insight into the politics of Kenya today. It is a book banned in Kenya. One wants to know more. I certainly did. And Richard Leakey's new book Wildlife Wars about the extraordinary struggle of a single dedicated white Kenyan to sort out the turmoil in the Kenya Wildlife Service is a fascinating story interlaced with political intrigue.

The Leakey name has been well known in Kenya and indeed internationally since Mary Leakey discovered the partially buried skull of a human-like creature called Australopiticus boisei in Olduvai Gorge in 1959. Louis and Mary Leakey, Richard Leakey's parents, had been excavating at Olduvai Gorge for nearly thirty years before this sensational discovery of the hominid skull which scientists estimated at being almost 1.75 million years old. The discovery pointed exclusively to the fact that Africa and not China was the cradle of humanity. However this discovery, which got world-wide attention, was eclipsed four years later when the young Richard Leakey made his first solo flight over Lake Natron in Tanzania and recognized the barren eroded sediments of the Lake's western shore as being similar to the fossil beds of Olduvai Gorge. Exploration led to the discovery of a fossilized lower jaw bone of an ancient hominid much like the australopithicene discovery in 1959. Further discoveries in 1967 led to sponsorship by the National Geographic Society for excavation at Lake Turkana, and Leakey's eventual appointment as the Director of Kenya's National Museum.

Despite a near tragic kidney disease which the young Richard Leakey survived only after a kidney transplant from his younger brother Philip in 1979, President Moi, impressed with his dedication to his first government position, then surprisingly appointed the young Kenyan as Director of Wildlife. The politics, corruption, and inertia in the Wildlife Department, and in the government at large, were all so entrenched that failure seemed almost inevitable. Nevertheless, at a subsequent meeting with the president, Leakey accepted the position. His turbulent political career had started.

With an area of 270,000 square miles, Kenya is roughly the same size as Texas. Tourism is Kenya's most vital industry. Kenya became particularly famous as a big-game hunting destination after Theodore Roosevelt's safari there in 1909. Other hunters included two then future British kings; the Prince of Wales, later Kind Edward VIII, and the Duke of York, later King George VI, followed in Roosevelt's tracks. At the same time European settlers were creating large farms and cattle ranches in the country. They too killed large numbers of wild animals to clear land. With this kind of unmanaged slaughter, it wasn't long before vast numbers of wild animals began to decline sharply. Game reserves were created. The Game Department was formed, and by 1930 it had grown into a substantial agency with dozens of wardens responsible for monitoring wildlife throughout the country. Nairobi National Park became the first of Kenya's parks in 1946, followed by Tsavo in 1948. Mount Kenya and Aberdares National Parks followed before Kenya gained its independence in 1963.

In 1976 when the government decided to merge the Game Department and National Parks the new agency was renamed the Department of Wildlife and Conservation Management, and the World Bank approved a loan for $26 million. Thus when Leakey inherited the Director's chair the agency had completely lost its independence. It was forced to turn over its revenue to the Government treasury from which it received substantially reduced operating funds. It was then that serious elephant poaching got under way. Unable to fight back against the poachers, many within the Department of Wildlife either watched helplessly or joined in the lucrative ivory trade business.

What follows in Leakey's book Wildlife Wars is Rider Haggard stuff. The economics of the ivory trade makes for staggering reading. To stop this Leakey, as head of the Department of Wildlife, decided to make a dramatic international public statement by burning the enormous stocks, nearly thirteen thousand tons, of ivory. But would the ivory burn? Elephant tusks are actually incisor teeth that have evolved into tools and weapons. They are a mass of hard dentine (a kind of calcium). They are very hard and durable and astonishingly long lasting.

After several futile attempts to burn some broken tusks at Kuki Gallman's ranch in Northern Kenya in an open fire it was decided to gamble on painting a highly flammable liquid glue on the tusks before actually setting the enormous hoard of ivory alight. The gamble worked and, in the presence of President Moi, and with the world's press in attendance, the dramatic bonfire was set alight with an appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory. The picture of the ivory fire filled the front pages of newspapers around the world, and it was estimated that between the TV coverage and the pictures in magazines and newspapers some 850 million people saw the elephant tusks burn. There is little doubt that this single act forced the embargos and laws that caused the eventual decline in the world's ivory trade.

Bandits, murder, poaching, financial corruption, and political intrigue all played an enormous part in the career of Richard Leakey over the next fifteen years. George Adamson was murdered in 1989. There were constant death threats on Leakey's life. There were other political assassinations. Despite this Leakey's charisma and determination re-moulded the Kenya Wildlife Service (renamed again) into an efficient almost independent organization which got the respect and eventual sponsorship of the World Bank. The Kenya Wildlife Service became the jewel but also the envy of many other government agencies. There were new multi-party elections in 1992 in which President Moi's party KANU was re-elected. But the successful Kenya Wildlife Service that Leakey had reorganized now came under political fire. It had become a parastatal agency, autonomous of the government, and had the backing of the World Bank. Leakey, with a considerable amount of power, almost ran the agency as he saw fit. But the Treasury Department was making it increasingly difficult for them to get the funds the World Bank had put at Kenya Wildlife Service disposal. Politicians and other government agencies were jealous of the fat coffers at KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) which many in the government wanted diverted for other causes.

Then in June 1993, as he flew to a KWS Training College north of Nairobi in the Rift Valley, Leakey's plane strangely lost power and crashed. No one was killed but both of Leakey's legs were badly mangled and eventually had to be amputated in England eight inches below the knees. Sabotage was suspected but never proved. Many thought the crash had been an assassination attempt.

First in a wheel-chair, and then with artificial legs, Leakey returned to Africa and to the KWS with renewed zeal. There were more political attacks and an eventual decision by the government to freeze World Bank money and to interrogate Leakey for "alleged financial and employment irregularities." The KWS continued to operate but only on bank loans. The Treasury still refused to release funds. Finally, the President issued a directive in March 1994 that 75 percent of KWS revenue was to be used for communities outside park boundaries, thus leaving only 25 percent for running the parks. The KWS, as Leakey says in his book, was finished. He resigned on March 23, 1994, and his main critic David Western was appointed the new Director of Kenya Wildlife Services.

As Leakey points out, being on the outside led him to realize how many people were fed up with the government and its corrupt practices. Being the restless person he is, Leakey almost immediately joined the efforts of some disgruntled Kenyans and took the bold step of forming a new political party, SAFINA. Organized mob attacks of hired thugs with whips and clubs followed. Nevertheless, in the 1997 elections, the SAFINA party won five parliamentary seats¨a good beginning.

Leakey's beloved KWS had suffered declining fortunes since Leakey's 1994 resignation. Finally, a desperate President Moi asked him to resume his position of Director in May of 1998. He did so but remained only for one year. By then Leakey's career had taken on a new political meaning. President Moi, in June 1999, appointed Leakey to the exalted position of Permanent Secretary to the President, and head of Kenya's Public Service. He was also invited to head a special 'reform team' to eliminate corruption.

A year ago Richard Leakey was unquestionably the second most powerful person in Kenya (outranked only by President Moi). He had also acquired a taste for politics. The one-time head of Wildlife Service and respected conservationist was now head of the Public Service and had been given the unenviable task of ridding Kenya of its escalating corruption. More than anything he might well have been the only person in the Kenyan government trusted by the World Bank. But then once again Leakey resigned¨his fragile relationship with Kenya's President deteriorating. Many speculated that this was finally the end of Richard Leakey, but after reading his book, I find it difficult to imagine. He has certainly had a checkered career and he tells his story well in Wildlife Wars. The book must, I feel, have been written with a purpose, and I cannot help but think that there is still another chapter to be written by this so-called "white face in Kenya politics". There is an election looming again, and, who knows, he may even have his eyes on the Presidency itself. ˛

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