Hubert Burda Media

BORN TO THE WILD

Paleoanthropologist RICHARD LEAKEY, who will soon be played on film by Brad Pitt, talks about his work in elephant conservation

BORN TO THE WILD

RICHARD LEAKEY IS about to go global. The Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist, already renowned in both his fields of eminence but hardly a household name, is to be played by Brad Pitt in a film biography, Africa, written by Forrest Gump scriptwriter Eric Roth and directed by Angelina Jolie. With such a distinguished crew behind it, and with the prodigious possibilities that Leakey's colourful and often controversial life offer for swashbuckling dramatisation, it's a project that will no doubt boost the 70-year-old into a stellar orbit of name recognition.

“I'm not directing or advising, and have no control over the details of the script,” admits the tall, pugilist-faced Leakey on a recent trip to Hong Kong, “but I've long believed that a Hollywood blockbuster could do an enormous amount of good to make people aware of the problems facing Africa and its wildlife.”

Leakey speaks old school, his sentences carefully considered, his voice clipped, his cadences perfect, a delivery no doubt honed by years of political fighting and fund-raising for the wildlife causes he champions. His commitment to these causes is palpable, yet in his younger days he was more associated with man – or hominids – than elephants or rhinos. Growing up in colonial-era Kenya as one of three sons of the pioneering paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, he spent much of his time with them on digs learning the fossil-hunting métier.

He left school at 16 after relations with his father soured, and started a trapping business, at the same time masterminding a scheme to rejuvenate and “Kenyanise” the National Museum of Kenya, eventually becoming its director. Meanwhile, his trapping business led him inexorably back to paleoanthropology as he discovered more and more important hominid fossils in the field – particularly around Lake Turkana – to the point where he became as illustrious as his parents. His 1977 book Origins (co-authored with Roger Lewin) and his presentation of the 1981 BBC series The Making of Mankind only served to reinforce his stature.

It's an abiding interest. “How many Chinese or Hongkongers know that they came from Kenya?” Leakey asks. “If you look at the Origins story and you go to your own DNA and history there's not a person in Hong Kong, or China, or in South America, who didn't begin their journey as being a modern human in Kenya, Lake Turkana, in the last 70,000 years. There is a relationship to Africa that we all have but few know we have.”

Leakey's career as a superstar paleoanthropologist seemed assured, but it changed direction abruptly in 1989 when, against Kenya's turbulent political backdrop and an international outcry against rampant elephant poaching, he was appointed head of the country's Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, a corrupt, cash-strapped body that seemed utterly toothless in the face of poaching and international ivory-trade interests. Leakey's strategy was characteristically incisive: in a high-profile campaign he publicly burned ivory stockpiles and armed his rangers, with orders to shoot poachers on sight. The trade – and the poaching – ground to an abrupt halt.

“If you get rid of the market ... remember, in 1989, when I had the temerity to suggest that we destroy Kenyan stockpiles, which had been valued at just over US$3 million – it had been auctioned three weeks before I took the job, and I cancelled the auction on the grounds that technically it hadn't been properly undertaken – I decided that we were going to write off [the ivory] and burn it. When the auction was held, and at the time I burned it, that ivory was worth the equivalent of $150 a pound. Six months after I burned it you couldn't have got $5 for a pound of ivory, not just in Kenya, but across Africa. People stopped buying. Poaching stopped almost 100 percent almost overnight.”

Leakey's uncompromising stance earned him enemies, and it may have been no accident when, in 1993, the light aircraft he was piloting stalled and crashed, leading to the amputation of both his legs below the knee. It didn't matter; he came out fighting and formed a political party, Safina, and despite death threats – and a bullwhipping for Leakey in the streets – he and six other candidates won seats in parliament, where he ultimately served as Cabinet Secretary from 1999 to 2001.

Since then he's concentrated on raising awareness of and funds for conservation, particularly that of the elephant. His presence in Hong Kong is part of that campaign, where he's to address the Royal Geographical Society. He's also here to promote high-end safari tourism and ecotourism, which he sees as essential to preserving the integrity of wilderness and wildlife, and is being hosted to that end by luxury operator A2A Safaris, for whom he acts as a quasi-ambassador. “The high-end, I think, is the way to go,” he says.

So are safaris mainly a chance for rich people to indulge themselves and Africans to cash in before all the wildlife is gone?

“It's not a question of going now before it's gone,” he retorts levelly, “it's a question of going now before you're gone. Sadly, protecting the habitat, paying wages and salaries, maintaining a fleet of vehicles for patrols costs money. And in many countries, governments are desperately poor. For government to give adequate support to conservation and for there to be no other sources of revenue means that government will have to stop supporting to the level it should be supporting education, health, roads, infrastructure. So ecotourism brings a huge amount of benefit to conservation.”

How can tourists be sure that a safari won't feel like a sophisticated circus, with cars queueing up at the iconic leopard tree? Leakey's response is pragmatic and upbeat. “It's like most things today; you can find what you're looking for. If you want to get to a safari-park-type situation where you line up to see the same lion that 10,000 other people have seen in the last week, you can do that. If you want to get immersed into nature and really have a personal relationship with the wilderness, it's also possible. You can find within the context of African tourism almost any experience you're looking for if you get the right guides and the right operator.”

I ask him what Africa – due to be released in late 2016 – can achieve for the elephant. “Ivory is being exported out of Africa, much of it illegal,” he says, “to feed what appears to be an insatiable market, especially in China and the East, who are totally uninformed or illinformed about the implications of the ivory trade. Many are unaware that ivory comes from animals that are being killed; that to kill an elephant is illegal; that in the process of protecting elephants people get killed; and that the numbers of elephants that are being killed has reached a level where the elephants will – like in China – become extinct. The increase in elephant poaching is terrifying.

“So if there's a love story around elephants where the players in the love story are elephants, the audience – particularly young audiences – will become much more interested in the animal and quite sympathetic to things said about elephants by [their] heroes and heroines.”

Given the gravity of his message, how does he feel about Hollywood's propensity for sending cinema audiences home feeling contented? His answer reveals a touch of prickly pragmatism over the way the Leakey character is likely to be portrayed. “I had to think very carefully about agreeing [to the film], because clearly everything in there, even if there's a grain of truth, it'll be unrecognisable on the screen. But I have been given enough assurances that the message I want to put across in terms of the need for elephants to be given a much more sympathetic existence – I think the chances are pretty good. I feel confident that this will be the film that will pass that message, and if it is, I can live with the tittle-tattle of whether this was true or that was true about my personal life.”

When I mention that in 2014 the Environmental Investigation Agency, whose mission is to investigate and expose crimes against wildlife and the environment, claimed that the criminal syndicates behind elephant poaching are often led by Chinese nationals, Leakey deftly refuses to be drawn into the political arena. “The EIA has experts, it has a profile, it has a task. I'm not going to comment on the veracity or otherwise of any NGO's operations. They put out their information. Whether it's controlled by nationals of China, clearly the majority of the end market is in China. That's connecting two points of fact with a number of dots. Independent investigators and statistics will establish just where the links are. I don't know.”

Does he plan to visit the country while he's here? “Not on this trip, no. With this new film now, the certainty that it's going to come out, I wanted to go myself [to Hong Kong] and see what the opportunities there were to use the film to generate real public interest in a change of attitude. I want to talk to people in government here, I want to talk to people in industry here, in conservation, in tourism. And over the next two years as the film develops I would like to reconnect, and send people back to start talking about how, if the film could have its Asia premiere here, or the mainland, or a combination of both, what could we build into that event to take the message of the film and the plight of the elephant to the next level.” The consummate fund-raiser leans forward and addresses me directly. “I couldn't come back to you if I hadn't met you, and say, ‘Do you remember we left it there? Take it from here to the next stage. Here is the story, here is the focus.' ”

Leakey is, however, under no illusions as to China's central role. “The number of wealthy people in China is unbelievable. That is the future of this planet, how the Chinese treat it. The high rollers in China are going to set the pace, whether it's the current government, the next government or the government after that. The Chinese are hugely important on planet Earth, and it would be completely idiotic to continue, as some people are in America and Europe, putting our heads in the sand as if it's just an Eastern country blowing hot air.

“It just so happens that the majority of African elephants, their tusks at least, are coming to China, and much of them through Hong Kong. So this would seem an important place for people to understand that they've got to start talking about this. Why should Hong Kong be used as an agent for the destruction of one of the planet's last remaining incredible animals?”

For information about endangered animals, visit the website of Richard Leakey's NGO, wildlifedirect.org