Wednesday, December 19, 2007

December 19: Richard Leakey (b. 1944)

I had two legs in the grave, but I wasn't dead.

Kenya-based paleoanthropologist, museum administrator, Kenyan government official, and environmentalist Richard Erskine Frere Leakey turns 63 today. In his twenties, he was diagnosed with terminal kidney disease, and told he had only a decade to live. (He had a kidney transplant in his thirties, with significant immune system complications afterwards, but he's outlived that prediction by thirty years and counting....) As the first chairman of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, he took on the problems of poaching and the ivory trade.

In 1993, he was injured in a plane crash that may have been caused by sabotage (widely suspected, never proven). Since then, he's used two below-the-knee prosthetics, or in some situations a wheelchair. During his term in the Kenyan parliament (1997-1999), he introduced legislation to protect the rights of disabled people in Kenya. He continues his work, as a visiting fellow at SUNY-Stony Brook, and as chairman of Wildlife Direct, which funds conservationist work in Africa and encourages park rangers to publicize their work through blogs and other "on the ground" reporting. He's been a trustee of the National Fund for the Disabled in Kenya (1980-1995) and the National Kidney Foundation of Kenya (1981-1990).

Leakey describes the plane crash and its aftermath, with detailed descriptions of learning how to use a wheelchair and prosthetic legs, returning to his work and activism, encountering social and political disadvantages as a disabled person, etc., in his memoir Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa's Natural Treasures (with Virginia Morell; St. Martins 2002). Here's Leakey's own blog.

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