Q&A: Dr. Richard Leakey

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Conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey

Timehost: Welcome to our TIME chat this morning Our guest is Richard Leakey, paleoanthropologist and environmentalist. He has received worldwide attention for his work as the head of Kenya's Wildlife Service, during which he has worked to protect all endangered wildlife and eco-systems. He is also well-known for his work in paleoanthropology, in discovering the story of human. Both his parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, were also pioneers in this field. The Leakey family has been chosen by TIME Magazine as among the 20 most influential scientists of the 20th century. Richard Leakey, thank you very much for joining us today.

Dr. Richard Leakey: It's a pleasure.

Timehost: Let's take the first question...

Question: Dr.Leakey, do you have any new theories on the process of evolution?

Dr. Richard Leakey: No, it's not so much theories of evolution, but understanding the fact of evolution. What we're concentrating on today is what has actually happened on planet earth, not speculating on what might have happened.

Question: What do you think of the decision to lift the ban on ivory for Botswana and two other African countries? What will it mean for Kenya's elephants?

Dr. Richard Leakey: I regret the decision. I believe the opening of even limited trade could have dire consequences.

Timehost: What according to you, has happened on planet earth where humans are concerned? We will have to monitor very closely and we may have to spend money we can ill afford to on enforcement.

Question: What do you think your most significant accomplishment has been?

Dr. Richard Leakey: A difficult question - it's not over yet. But the popularization of the origins story is one. The other is highlighting the plight of the elephant. I feel that is significant.

Question: How would you say your view on paleoanthropology differs from that of your parents? Or does it differ?

Dr. Richard Leakey: I don't think it does differ. My parents had very similar ideas. We now have a lot more evidence than when they were alive, and we have a lot more confidence about what we know.

Question: What is your view on what actually has happened in the course of evolution?

Timehost: That's a really simple question...

Dr. Richard Leakey: The whole story is about change. We are very lucky that the earth's history is recorded in fossilized remains. And we can see the changes. Unfortunately, there will always be gaps in our knowledge, but there is no doubt that we and everything living today has evolved.

Question: If consciousness is a function of an evolving brain, is there evidence as to when it might have first occurred?

Dr. Richard Leakey: Consciousness is being self-aware. What we are beginning to see is that there is a degree of self-awareness in other species. The chimpanzee is an example. They seem to be aware of their individual existence. If that is true, we can safely assume that our ancestors 4 million years ago were self-aware, or conscious.

Question: Was your path in life most influenced by your parents' contributions or was this a field you believe would have been found regardless? Did your studies come naturally to you?

Dr. Richard Leakey: In hindsight it's clear that my parents both influenced me enormously. Professionally they gave me an enormous starting advantage. My career has recently included conservation and politics and it's difficult to ascribe that directly to parental influence.

Question: Has the terrorist bombing of the American Embassy affected your work in Kenya significantly?

Dr. Richard Leakey: No, the tragedy is clearly frightening to people wishing to visit here, but it seems to be a one time event. There is no ongoing fear of terrorism in this part of the world. By comparison to other regions we are very quiet and safe.

Question: What would you say Kenya's most pressing environmental problem is?

Dr. Richard Leakey: The greatest problem we face is the growing number of people living in poverty. The related sense of hopelessness has to be impacting on every part of environmental management.

Question: What is your impression of groups, such as exist in the US, that deny evolution in favor of the Biblical theory of creation?

Dr. Richard Leakey: I have been raised to believe in freedom of thought and speech. If a minority wishes to accept that position it's their right. What I fear is that this minority may seem to be larger than it truly is. What is strange is that there are still people who believe the world is not a globe.

Question: If we take our family on one of the Wildlife Safari Trips to Kenya from the US are we contributing to the problem, or to the solution?

Dr. Richard Leakey: By coming you are not contributing to a problem because the numbers of tourists are so few. We do have some instances of too many people in one place but this can be resolved by better management, not by discouraging visits to Kenya.

Question: What first prompted you to abandon safari work and go into anthropology?

Dr. Richard Leakey: I found looking after people on a day-to-day basis boring. I enjoyed the wild places.

Question: How do you feel about the issues between the AmerIndian and the state of Washington in relation to Kenniwick Man found in the Columbia Basin?

Dr. Richard Leakey: That's complicated for a non-American, but I do believe the study of human history remains important and should not be banned. We should ensure that any archaeological studies are conducted with sensitivity and respect. Reburying relics, in my view, does not help anyone go anywhere.

Question: What about your political activities? How are relations with President Moi now?

Dr. Richard Leakey: I have gone back to the management of Kenya's wildlife service and will concentrate on conservation for the next three years. The next election is in 2002, closer to then I will make the decision to re-enter politics or do something else.

Timehost: I know you've got to run now, Dr. Leakey, thanks for joining us today.

Dr. Richard Leakey: Thank you.