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

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

by Richard Leakey, Virginia Morell

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"Known the world over for his work in early human origins, Richard Leakey was serving as director of Kenya's National Museums when in 1989 President Daniel arap Moi appointed him to run the country's Wildlife Department. The news stunned Leakey. He was suddenly in charge of an enormous bureaucracy whose responsibility was to oversee millions of square acres of parks…  See more details below


"Known the world over for his work in early human origins, Richard Leakey was serving as director of Kenya's National Museums when in 1989 President Daniel arap Moi appointed him to run the country's Wildlife Department. The news stunned Leakey. He was suddenly in charge of an enormous bureaucracy whose responsibility was to oversee millions of square acres of parks and sanctuaries, and to protect the animals living in them. Like many other Kenyans, Leakey knew that the country's fabulous wildlife population, in particular, the elephant, was in very real danger. By the late 1980s, the once numberless herds of elephants that roamed its savannas were dwindling fast, victims of poachers armed with automatic weapons, bureaucratic inefficiency, and the world's appetite for ivory. Extinction was more than a theoretical possibility." Wildlife Wars is Leakey's account of these turbulent times, capturing Kenya's struggle to balance the needs of its human population with the task of maintaining the world-famous parks that are its major source of revenue. As candid and controversial as its author, this memoir, cowritten with Leakey family biographer and writer Virginia Morell, is testimony to one man's commitment to save African wildlife and to serve his country.

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Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Elephants are intelligent, stubborn, and fierce fighters when provoked. So, too, is one of their most effective defenders in East Africa: Richard Leakey, the author of Wildlife Wars. The son of famous Kenyan paleontologists, Leakey served for much of the 1990s as founding head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, a quasi-governmental organization formed to protect the country's game parks and reserves -- and their rich array of wildlife -- from poaching, encroachment, and neglect.

Leakey struggled from the very beginning against tribal infighting, opposition from other African nations to a global ivory ban, accusations of corruption, and a shocking legacy of mismanagement and underfunding. His achievements in revamping the demoralized park service despite constant criticism, detailed here, were remarkable. Along the way, Leakey made plenty of enemies; in fact, the injuries he suffered in a suspicious 1993 plane crash led to the amputation of both his legs. One gets a strong sense from Wildlife Wars of a rather egotistical man with a somewhat abrasive manner. But his commitment to wildlife and the nation of Kenya is hard to question.

There are two schools of thought on managing Africa's national parks, and Leakey has been taken to task for preferring to fence off the parks and perhaps neglecting the importance of getting local communities to participate in and benefit from them. Although he speaks frequently and defensively about understanding the importance of "balancing the needs of our citizens with the needs of our wildlife," the debate rages over whether this rhetoric was matched by his actions. The book ends with Leakey's departure from KWS and his entrance into the fractious new world of Kenyan multiparty politics: a logical next step for a man whose actions, though they may have rubbed some the wrong way, were for the good of his country. (Jonathan Cook)

Jonathan Cook lives in New York City.

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St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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6.30(w) x 9.76(h) x 1.20(d)

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Wildlife Wars

My Fight to Save Africa's Natural Treasures

By Richard Leakey, Virginia Morell

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 Sherma BV and Virginia Morell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7385-8


It was late one afternoon in May 1989, only ten days after President Daniel arap Moi had appointed me director of Kenya's Wildlife Department, when I first saw the elephant tusks. Rangers and policemen from the Kenyan government had confiscated the ivory from poachers and stacked it in neat piles in a stone warehouse with steel doors (it had been built to store weapons and ammunition) on Museum Hill in Nairobi. It was all to be sold to the highest bidder. Rangers armed with assault rifles stood guard — and with good reason. On the open market, raw ivory like this was then going for about a hundred dollars a pound. The approximately two thousand tusks stored here were therefore worth a considerable sum of money. The money to be earned from the ivory auction was earmarked for the Wildlife Department, which was in desperate financial straits and rife with corruption and inefficiency. Were I to straighten it out and stop the poaching that was destroying our elephant population, those funds would certainly help.

I had never really paid much attention to elephant tusks. In fact, before that day, I had almost never had occasion to handle one. Prior to my appointment to Wildlife, I had been director of the National Kenya Museums — and best known as a paleontologist and discoverer of early human fossils. Moi's announcement that I would take over Wildlife had come out of the blue, and I was scrambling hard trying to figure out how to proceed. I knew that elephant poaching was a major problem, potentially a national disaster, and I had been revolted by photos I had seen of gruesomely mangled animals, their faces and tusks hacked away. I was also familiar with the numbers that indicated the seriousness of their decline: eighty-five thousand elephants lived in Kenya in 1979, only twenty-two thousand a decade later. But nothing conveyed the horror of the slaughter — or the enormity of the task that I had been given — than what I saw in that storeroom on that afternoon.

It was windowless and airless; a slightly acrid, musty odor hung in the air. The only light came from a bare bulb suspended from the ceiling by a long black cord. Stacks of elephant tusks rose to the ceiling along the entire length of the cement floor. I walked among the piles, stopping occasionally to lift a tusk and feel its weight. The kind of elephant ivory I knew best came from ancient, extinct species, some of them several million years old. Those tusks often crumbled at the slightest touch, and I had spent hours in the desert sun painting a lacquer over their breaks and fissures to harden them so that they could be transported. In contrast, these tusks, which came from recently slaughtered elephants, were smooth and solid. Ranging in hue from pure white to a yellowish brown, they seemed sensuously warm to the touch. Some of the largest ones swept out in arcs over six feet long; they were from males, I guessed. Others were shorter, more delicate in shape, and I assumed that they came from females and younger males. But it was the small tusks, some no longer than the length of my hand, that were the most disturbing — not just because they came from very young elephants, but because they indicated that whoever was behind the poaching was willing to kill every last animal in a herd. These poachers and their backers were ruthless. And now it was my job to stop them.

I wandered from the main hall into an adjacent room, only to find another depressing sight: piles of zebra skins and pelts of leopards, cheetahs, and other wild cats, most of them rotting. These, too, had been confiscated from poachers, as had been about a hundred rhino horns that were stacked on some wooden shelves. And there were the trophies confiscated from curio shops: elephant feet that had been made into stools or umbrella stands, and belts, wallets, and purses made of elephant and zebra hide. The storehouse was damp and smelled of decomposing skins. I was anxious to get out. I had seen enough. The pelts, especially those from leopards and cheetahs, haunted me. I remembered Brigitte Bardot's "burn the coats" campaign in the 1970s. By setting fire to her fur coats in a street demonstration in Paris, Bardot had launched a campaign against using baby-seal skins and wild-cat pelts in the fashion world, and by doing so had changed an entire industry.

That evening, while showering at home, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. My wife, Meave, was getting ready for dinner. I leaned out of the shower and shouted, "I'm not selling that ivory. I'm going to burn it."

"But it's worth a lot of money, Richard," she replied. "Are you sure the government will let you do that?"

"I don't know yet. But I do know we need to be bold," I said, turning off the water. "We've got to show the world we're serious about putting an end to this poaching and the ivory trade."

"But," Meave asked, "does ivory burn?"

Her words brought me back to earth. I didn't know whether you could burn ivory. I didn't even know whether the government would let me burn the entire stock of tusks — except perhaps for some exceptionally large examples that might be of interest to museums — but I would find out.

Finding things out was the nature of my new job at Wildlife. There were lots of things I didn't know: how to wear the official Wildlife uniform or salute the rangers on my staff, for starters. More important, I really knew nothing about elephants or their behavior; and if I was to save these animals, both for Kenya's sake and for their own, I would have to learn fast.

I was aware of the enormous irony this presented. I had spent hours, as I've mentioned, preserving old tusks. Now here I was trying to figure out the best way to destroy two thousand or so modern tusks, objects that many cultures of the world valued and cherished. It was all a long way from the cloistered world of fossils and museums, and I found myself reflecting upon the events that had led me to this job — and to this crusade.

* * *

About a year earlier, in the spring of 1988, Fiona Alexander, a friend who was a lobbyist for animal causes, had stopped me at Nairobi's Wilson Airport. She and I are both pilots, and I had just returned from a trip to Kenya's Lake Turkana, where I had been leading a fossil-hunting expedition. Fiona told me that she had become a spokeswoman for a group that wanted something done about the elephant poaching. They hoped that as chairman of the board of the East African Wildlife Society, a conservation organization, I would join them in speaking out against it. At the time, like many other Kenyans, I assumed the government was doing everything it could to contain the problem. Fiona told me that the opposite was true. I suggested that we meet again, and that she bring something to back up what she had told me.

A few days later Fiona stopped by my office at the National Museums with a report she had compiled from her discussions with wardens working in the parks. These wardens had quietly been gathering information, supported by photographs, about the elephant slaughter. The animals were not being killed with spears and arrows by poor, hungry tribesmen; they were being killed with automatic weapons by well-organized bands. It was nothing less than orchestrated economic sabotage.

Some of the wardens had told Fiona confidentially that the poaching had gotten completely out of control: elephants were being gunned down in full view of tourist lodges and along roads, and nothing was being done to stop it. It was widely believed that certain park rangers and wardens were colluding with the poachers. Fiona also told me that a secret report had been prepared for Dr. Perez Olindo, who at the time was director of the Wildlife Department (its full name was Department of Wildlife and Conservation Management), and his boss, George Muhoho, minister of Tourism and Wildlife. This secret report allegedly contained a list of senior government employees thought to be behind the poaching. I asked Fiona whether there wasn't some way to see that report. She told me that that would be impossible. The government kept it tightly under wraps, and no one was leaking any copies.

Others in the conservation community backed up what Fiona had told me. Several said that they, too, were deeply concerned about both the scale of the poaching and the corruption within the Wildlife Department and didn't know what to do. Some feared that if I spoke up, someone in the government might retaliate.

Something needed to be done. I agreed to Fiona's request to speak out. I found the pictures of the bullet-riddled elephants appalling and the thought that armed gangs were freely wandering around our national parks terrifying. I was even more outraged that some of Kenya's own government officials apparently had a hand in the slaughter. Fiona was right. These things needed to be made public — particularly since it seemed unlikely that the secret report would ever see the light of day. I also knew that any action was politically dangerous. As director of the National Museums of Kenya, I was, technically speaking, a Kenyan public servant. Were I to speak out, reprisals would surely follow.

As my family and others can attest, I'm known for speaking my mind, a trait I probably inherited from my parents, Louis and Mary Leakey — neither of whom was renowned for tact. Yet, twenty-five years of public service had taught me patience. I realized that I couldn't suddenly make a rushed announcement about corruption and incompetence. Moreover, elephant poaching needed to be raised in a way that would bring to it a maximum amount of press attention. An opportunity presented itself in late August 1989. I took full advantage of it.

An ornithological conference was to be held at the Museum, and Dr. Olindo, Minister Muhoho, and I were to convene it. The day before the conference, poachers shot and killed two Wildlife rangers in Tsavo National Park; the newspapers carried a brief mention of their deaths. When reporters arrived at the Museum to cover the conference, I asked them whether they also wanted to meet with the Wildlife director and the Tourism minister, to ask them about the murders. They replied that they were very keen to do so. I promised that there would be a press conference in the Museum's board room immediately after the opening ceremonies.

At those ceremonies, I took a seat next to Muhoho and whispered to him that the press was eager to meet with him to talk about the importance of birding to Kenya's tourism industry. I suggested that he might use the occasion to offer some reassuring statements about government action following the loss of the two rangers. Muhoho nodded his head; he'd be happy to do this. The trap was set.

Muhoho and Olindo sat together at the press conference; I kept to the back of the room. After a few remarks about Kenya's wonderful bird life, Muhoho announced that every effort was being made to apprehend the elephant poachers. He pledged that the families of the murdered rangers would be fully compensated. A reporter asked him what the government was doing to stop the poaching. Muhoho replied that everything possible was being done, and that the situation wasn't as bad as had been suggested. The press conference then broke up. While they were leaving, several reporters asked me whether I had anything to say in response. I replied that I certainly did, and that I would be holding my own press conference at two o'clock that very afternoon. That, of course, piqued their interest.

In the late 1980s, Kenya was still a one-party state with a tightly controlled media. People — whether private citizens or government employees — seldom criticized anything the government said or did. Doing so could land you in prison, or worse. Thus, when I announced that what Muhoho had told them that morning was frankly untrue, a ripple of surprise moved through the room. Pens started flying across notebooks. I told the reporters that Muhoho had done no more than pay lip service to a national crisis that was clearly out of control, and that I, for one, wondered why the government was doing nothing. I likened the slaughter of our elephants to economic sabotage: elephants were the flagship species of our wildlife and the basis for Kenya's biggest industry, tourism. The decimation of elephants and other wildlife therefore posed a direct economic threat to our country. Its being allowed to continue, I suggested, made it appear that powerful government figures must be involved. Indeed, I added, a secret report existed that named names, and I hinted that I had seen this report. I called on Minister Muhoho to tell the citizens of Kenya the truth once and for all.

Needless to say, the press loved it: here was Richard Leakey, well-known personality and government employee, speaking out on the record. This was a new experience for them. For a week, newspaper headlines trumpeted LEAKEY TELLS ALL ABOUT POACHING, NAMES OF POACHERS WITH MINISTER, SAYS LEAKEY. I had never been involved in such a bare-knuckled public fight. Muhoho didn't waste time in counterattacking — MUHOHO ACCUSES LEAKEY ran one headline. He resented what he perceived as my meddling and tried to frame it in racist terms, telling the press that I had revealed a "cheeky white mentality" in believing that only whites were concerned about preserving wildlife. He said that he had already dismissed several high-ranking government officials for colluding with the poachers, and that the list of culprits in the secret report I had mentioned contained "nothing new." But Muhoho's broadside found few sympathizers; most of the letters to the editor chastised him for trying to turn elephant poaching into a racial issue instead of a matter of national concern. I clearly wasn't the only one to see how closely our economic fate was tied to our wildlife. Tourism employed more Kenyans than any other industry. No one expected the government to stand idly by while the animals were being slaughtered. My statements to the press sparked a small national debate and put the elephants squarely where they should have been — on page one.

A short while later, I went to talk to President Moi about another matter; and while I was in his office, he asked me about the elephant poaching. Was it really as bad as what I had told the press? I assured him that it was and said that more should be done to stop it.

President Moi's response was to announce, the next day, that Wildlife rangers and other security officers should retaliate forcefully and put a stop to poaching once and for all. For some time after that, Moi's exhortation that poachers should be "shot on sight" was misconstrued as an order simply to execute any and all apprehended poachers. This is not what was said, nor, as far as I know, was this ever done. Nonetheless, Moi's directive acknowledged that these poachers weren't simply poor tribesmen trying to catch something for dinner, but well-armed criminals who not only killed elephants but rangers as well. The problem with this new approach was that Kenya's rangers were vastly outgunned by the poachers — it seemed more likely that the rangers and not the poachers would suffer most from the president's directive. But Moi's strong words kept Kenya's elephant troubles in the international spotlight, which I thought was a good thing.

For the next few months, I had little time to think about the elephants. High-level government officials were working behind the scenes, lobbying hard to make my life at the National Museums so miserable that I would quit. And, in fact, I did resign at one point. But others in the government's higher circles persuaded me to come back. Then the plotting suddenly ceased. Whether or not the president was aware of these machinations or had had a hand in shutting them down, I'll never know.

During that time, the elephants' plight didn't improve, despite the government's get-tough policy. Between late 1988 and early 1989, the papers were full of reports of elephants being killed and of shoot-outs between poachers and rangers. Muhoho did rid the Wildlife Department of a few corrupt wardens; he and Dr. Olindo were often quoted as saying that Kenya was winning the battle with the poachers. But when a gang succeeded in killing five white rhinos — essentially tame animals that were supposedly kept under heavy ranger guard in Meru National Park in Central Kenya — it was clear to everyone that nothing had really changed. A few weeks later, another gang of bandits attacked and robbed tourists visiting Tsavo National Park, killing one.

Something needed to be done, and done quickly, but as director of National Museums I didn't exactly have the best platform. I thought about again using my position as chairman of the board of the East African Wildlife Society to rally the support of other international conservation organizations based in Nairobi. We might have been able to offer the government some constructive advice. However, I met with only a lukewarm response from the other conservationists, who did not want to interfere in Kenya's internal affairs. Though disappointed, I felt that I had done everything I could.


Excerpted from Wildlife Wars by Richard Leakey, Virginia Morell. Copyright © 2001 Sherma BV and Virginia Morell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Richard Leakey has made international headlines for his work in Kenya for over 30 years. He has authored or co-authored over 100 scientific articles and books, including The Origin of Humankind, Origins Reconsidered, and The Sixth Extinction

Virginia Morell is the author of Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings and Blue Nile: Ethiopia's River of Magic and Mystery. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and Science. She Lives in Oregon

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