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The Secret Life of Peter Beard, Part One

Susan Zakin

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. 

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac 

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One year ago today, the body of 82-year-old photographer Peter Beard was discovered a few miles from his home on Montauk, Long Island. Not long before his death, an editor had slapped this headline on a story about him: “Peter Beard Might Actually Be the Most Interesting Man in the World.”   If there is such a competition, Beard would certainly be in the running. 

After his corpse was discovered by a hunter in Camp Hero State Park, obituaries stressed Beard’s louche side: the partying, the models, the drugs. In recent years, those proclivities had caught up with him. Suffering from dementia, after several strokes, he had wandered off from home into the nearest forest as if he were an animal knowing it was his time. 

Beard’s friend Graham Boynton published an obituary in AirMail called “The Ladies’ Man Vanishes” comparing the handsome preppie photographer to polo-playing Tommy Hitchcock and Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican diplomat fictionalized by sex novelist Harold Robbins in The Adventurers. Beard deserved better. 

An artist who reinvented forms of photography and a true adventurer, Beard tried with every iota of  charm and intellect he possessed to stop the mass die-off of the world’s plants and animals. He died before coronavirus became widespread. But of all people, he would have understood what it meant, the poisoned gift of wild creatures reduced to small bands of survivors carrying diseases once safely hidden in the forest. 

He attracted so much attention while he was alive it’s difficult to imagine there could be anything left to discover after his death. Yet one mystery remained. But after Beard had pretty much given up on saving the world — one never does, not completely - he became obsessed with unusual objects carved from the horns and bones of wild animals. Used by the Maasai in his adopted home of Kenya, these pipes, amulets, and staffs became, in Beard’s mind, memento mori, aesthetic objects that are a reminder, or a warning, of death’s inevitability. And death was the ultimate subject of Beard’s art. 

Why had none of the anthropologists who studied the Maasai seen these sculptural objects, so strangely beautiful? One man had unlocked the mystery. Because of a scandal that surrounded these mysterious artifacts, for 25 years he refused to make his research public.

Sometimes being a reporter is a matter of timing. When I called him in 2013, he was ready to talk. His name was Roderic Blackburn.

 The Gentleman Scientist 

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In the summer of 1990, Rod Blackburn set out for Kenya. It was his first visit to this region in more than twenty years. He had arrived in 1968 as a gangly anthropology student. Now he was a man nearing fifty.

Blackburn had grown up in New York’s Hudson Valley. The son of wealthy but distant parents with Victorian notions of child rearing, Blackburn had been happiest hunting with his father in the forest surrounding their enormous house in Selkirk, near Albany. When he showed up in Nairobi, a PhD. candidate looking for his dissertation topic, an old Africa hand told him to look into a band of hunter gatherers believed to be extinct: the Okiek. Someone had reported seeing forest people fitting their description along a dirt track in the Mau forest. The largest mountain forest in East Africa, the Mau contained the headwaters for rivers that provided much of the country’s water. In those days, the Mau was still largely undisturbed.

Blackburn headed into the forest. Using the skills he’d developed as a boy in the woods of upstate New York, he found the Okiek. For the next two years, he and is wife DeGuerre hlived with them. His dissertation established him as a scholar respected in the U.S. but even more so in Kenya.   

Rod Blackburn’s research was important for many reasons, not least of which was the disregard in which hunter-gatherers were held in Kenya. Called dorobo, a word now considered derogatory although it is still in common use, the country’s hunter gatherers were seen as “a dying-out remnant of thieves, outlaws and other degenerate undesirables,” in Rod’s words. 

Starting in the 1960s, the more powerful ethnic groups in the newly independent country had disenfranchised hunter gatherers.  Like the dorobos, Rod’s culture was going extinct. Marked by the reserve associated with the culture of old money WASPs, he’d eschewed a conventional academic career. He shrank from the theatrical aspects of teaching. The brutal nature of academic disputes was anathema. A first-rate field man who could repair his Land Rover and live off the land if necessary, Rod kept meticulous notes and journals. But where he truly excelled was as a listener.   

One colleague described Rod Blackburn as unsuited for academia in another way: he was more interested in observation than theory. Anthropology, like many academic disciplines, had become mired in theoretical debates, and Rod was a throwback to earlier anthropologists: Franz Boaz, Bronisław Malinowski. And like many nineteenth-century scientific pioneers, Rod Blackburn possessed a trust fund that allowed him to follow his interests, even when they led to unexpected byways.  

In 1990, Rod’s enthusiasm for photography had led him to Hog Ranch, Peter Beard’s compound in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi. Rod had returned to Kenya to research the medicinal plants used by the Okiek, an aspect of their culture he hadn’t thought to ask about in the 1960s, before Westerners became aware of ethnobotany.   

He expected the visit to be purely social. Instead, Beard and his friend Gillies Turle showed him a vast array of objects - pipes, amulets, staffs - carved from bone and horn. Acting in Rod’s words “like eager schoolboys” they told him about Maasai diviners called laibons. Turle had been participating in their ceremonies, Beard often traveling with him, making portraits of the laibons and their ceremonies.   

Beard and Turle described an intricate tradition akin to what Westerners would call shamanism. The practices often involved pipes carved from bones and blowing smoke made from certain herbs to cure madness, bronchitis, or any number of ailments. Amulets protected livestock. Certain bones from an elephant or giraffe could lead to achieving wealth, which meant more cows. Alternately, these same herbs could speed death in a terminally ill person. Laibons could foretell the future, smite enemies, or heal wounds suffered by a moran, a young Maasai warrior, when he participated in the ritual killing of a lion.

Their stories, if  true, were astonishing. None of the literature on the Maasai, one of the most studied ethnic groups in the world, mentioned this mystical tradition. There was no question in Rod's mind that the pipes, amulets, grinding bowls for herbs were beautiful. Beard and Turle felt they were akin to the work of Picasso, Brancusi, and Noguchi. Given the African influence on twentieth century artists like Picasso and Modigliani, the Maasai objects, while they obviously hadn't influenced the Westerners, had a feel of the kinds of metaphorical memes that mythologist Joseph Cambell would later describe, archetypal symbols and stories that  recur across civilizations. 

Would Rod be willing to go out and research the objects? The Maasai laibons were concentrated in the Loita Hills, not far from the Okiek. Intrigued, but not necessarily convinced, Rod agreed to make side trips to investigate their finds.  He needed a research permit from Richard Leakey, not just to look into the Maasai artifacts, but for his Okiek research. The meeting turned out to be awkward, and a little bit frightening. 

Second Sons 

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Gillies Turle's father, British Navy Rear-Admiral Charles Edward Turle, C.B.E., D.S.O., R.N. 

It was Beard’s friend Gillies Turle who unwittingly set the collision course between Peter Beard and Richard Leakey. Rod  and Gillies were merely caught in the crossfire.  

In British novels, second sons were the feckless ones sent away to the colonies to manage the family’s plantations or forced to join the military. Turle fit the archetype so well that if this story were fiction, there would have to be some sort of wrinkle, a reversal of expectations, the revelation of an expected aspect to his character. Perhaps there is one.   

Turle’s father was an admiral in the British Navy, an heroic figure who returned to active duty in his forties when World War II broke out. Wounded in Greece, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.  Turle’s elder brother Arish did well in school and followed the family tradition by joining the military where he had a storied career. Gillies was an unremarkable student, rebellious, but in harmless, mischievous way, engaging in boarding school pranks. After an unremarkable stint in the British Army, he set off for adventure. He wrangled livestock as a jackaroo cowboy outside Sydney, mined for opals in Cooper Pedy where he learned about dreamtime from an Aborigine girlfriend, sheared sheep in New Zealand, and wound up - where else? — among Bohemians in Greenwich Village.   

Returning to London, Gillies discovered the gangster-run casinos of Swinging ‘60s London. He soon gambled away his trust fund. Arish managed to get his feckless younger brother hired by a private security company to guard Kenya’s first Minister of Lands after independence. Bruce MacKenzie was the only white minister tapped by Jomo Kenyatta in his first administration, a canny effort to avoid inter-tribal strife.   

Land means everything in Kenya, and thanks to his proximity to MacKenzie, Gillies became a Zelig character. Black, white, East Asian, everyone showed up at the land minister’s door. What kicked over a change for Turle, as he tells it, was meeting Kenyatta himself.   “The way I describe it is that when I came to Kenya, I wore lace-up boots,” Turle said. “I had all the attributes of an English schoolboy: racism, isolationism, superiority, arrogance.”  

The strapping ex-Army officer was introduced to Kenyatta at a garden party. Calling a black man “Mr. President” and “Your Excellency” was difficult, he remembers. But he managed. He recalls Kenyatta admonishing him, in avuncular tones: “You look after my minister.”  

A simple enough exchange, but Kenyatta’s sheer presence, his obvious depth and intelligence, the man’s undeniable gravitas, all of these made an impression on the young man. After Kenya became independent in 1963, Turle decided to stay. He married an English girl whose family had money and they bought a coffee plantation. Seeing an opportunity, he bought up art and household decor left by the departing British and used them to stock Nairobi’s first antiques shop. These were artifacts, too, in retrospect; a preview of Turle's fate.

In the late 1970s, Peter Beard had wandered in to Turle’s shop looking for a Zanzibar chest. The men bonded over old books about Africa, a shared passion for the outdoors, and the aesthetic sense that Beard had always possessed and Turle was cultivating in himself.  After Turle was divorced from his proper British wife, he moved onto Hog Ranch. 

Beard’s compound was no more than a hyped- up safari camp: a smattering of canvas tents visited by giraffes and warthogs (hence the name, although it’s said that Beard was cracking wise about the famous Nevada brothel, Mustang Ranch). The humans who visited were a who's who of the era, Jacqueline Onassis and Lee Radziwill, a constant stream of fashion models. Beard's trust fund wasn't as large as some imagined so he hustled work for big magazines: Vogue, Esquire, GQ, Elle. Like Beard, Turle was handsome, with impeccable manners and a taste for the good life. Unlike Beard, he had a car and a modicum of organizational ability. He fit right in.  

By the late 1980s, the stores of British silver was running low. Turle was seguing over to African art, and one day a Maasai man came to the shop. “I have something that will interest you,” Turle recalls the man saying. Refusing to elaborate, he insisted that Turle meet him at a Maasai village located several hours’ drive from Nairobi.  

Still an adventurer at heart, Turle couldn’t resist. At the village, the man led him into a manyatta, a hut made of sticks and dirt and cattle dung that is the traditional Maasai dwelling. Digging in ashes that looked as though they were the remains of a campfire, the man pulled out a stained staff called a rungu. While staffs like these were commonly wielded by leaders, the only ones Turle had seen were carved from wood. This rungu was rhino horn. 

 Thus began an obsession that would derail the lives of both Turle and Peter Beard. Turle was not an artist himself, but he had an eye for beauty and the compulsive drive of an art collector. He kept buying these objects. Not just rungus, but all of them: horn and bone pipes, arm bands, amulets, the carved splints young Maasai warriors used to pry open a lion’s jaws in the ceremonial hunts that were their initiation to manhood. 

 Turle’s sources explained that their sons and grandsons laibons were no longer interested in these objects. For traditional people, objects tend to have value through their use, not as contextless objects mounted in a museum. Turle remembers spending about $150 for each piece, sometimes a little more, sometimes less. 

 As the Maasai became a larger part of Turle’s life, Peter Beard found a new subject for his photography. The artifacts were remnants of the Kenya that had drawn Beard as a young man. The animals were dying out. And death was the ultimate subject of his art. 

 Not to Give a Damn 

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“I first got to know Peter the best way—not at a party or a club, but through his work,” writer Paul Theroux told Town and Country after Beard’s death. “People are full of stories about his carousing, but the fact is that his intensity as a writer, a traveler, a photographer, and an artist are what stands out for me.”  

Theroux is onto something, as he usually is. Like his slightly older contemporary, Lucian Freud, Beard located his interests early in life and possessed the means to follow where they led. In 1955, a seventeen-year-old Peter Beard traveled to Africa with the grandson of Charles Darwin to shoot a film on rhinos. in 1961, barely out of Yale, he traveled by ship around the Cape of Good Hope, visiting the island of Madagascar, remarkable for its rare plants and animals, before landing in Kenya.   

Beard had been premed at Yale, studying population dynamics before switching to art history. But his real education began after university. On his way back to Africa, Beard sought out Karen Blixen, who had written Out of Africa and several other books based on her life in Kenya, under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Dinesen had retreated to Denmark after her farm went bankrupt, her lover Denys Finch-Hatton was killed in a plane crash, and her debt-ridden husband infected her with syphilis. (“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills….” was the deceptively simple opening of Out of Africa, recited by Meryl Streep in the opening scene of the 1985 film adaptation.  

Blixen is derided as a colonialist now, but her writing remains impressive. Chiseled and burnished, her descriptions reveal a profound understanding of the place and its people. Through her offices, Beard bought 45 acres in the Ngong Hills - not far from the grave of Finch-Hatton. After her death, Beard hired Blixen’s majordomo, Kamante (Kamadi Gaturo). Gaturo’s drawings on Beard’s photographs helped gain him recognition as an artist in his own right.

Beard had read a book about Francis Bacon as a secondary school student in England, and in London, he sought out the painter. Bacon’s art was steeped in dissolution, raw and unsettling but masterful; half-realist, half-surreal renderings of the psyche. Over the course of their friendship, Bacon painted Beard 30 times, and Beard photographed Bacon. Some said the painter was in love with the young photographer. 

Who wouldn’t be gaga over Beard? Preternaturally handsome, quick and bright, someone who used himself hard but somehow remained delicate, Beard was becoming an artist in his own right yet, as Bonn noted, he shared Bacon’s preoccupations.   

“Bacon was probably secretly in love with Peter, and maybe not so secretly,” said Guillaume Bonn, a photographer who became friends with Beard and made a film about him. “They were very close. He connected with the work that Peter was doing, particularly with the carcasses and the dead elephants that Peter photographed. I think that spoke to Bacon’s work — they were both interested in the dialogue between life and death.”  

It’s not difficult to see Bacon’s influence on Beard’s work, but Beard’s influence on Bacon is less easy to spot. Yet Bacon acknowledged it. Bacon wrote: “Over the years, Peter Beard has given me many of his beautiful photographs. For me the most poignant are the ones of decomposing elephants where, over time, as they disintegrate, the bones form magnificent sculpture, sculpture which is not just abstract form but has all the memory traces of life’s futility and despair.”   

Bacon’s generous assessment of Beard’s photographs is an apt description of Bacon’s own art: realism and surrealism existing simultaneously, flesh decomposing, folding in on itself, evoking the breadth and arc of an individual life. What's remarkable is how Beard internalized and transformed Bacon’s influence while managing to develop his own voice. His photographs, and later, his collages—using monochrome images as a canvas for newspaper and magazine clippings, old contact sheets, dried leaves, insects, bones, butterflies, food wrappers, rocks, keys, buttons, feathers, a pocket from a pair of velvet jeans—had surreal elements, yet they were recognizable, much like the characters in Bacon’s paintings.   

“I like things that don’t look like you’re in control. It’s like life itself. You just learn how to benefit from accidents and chances that you take,” Beard told documentarian Derek Peck. It was a variation on something he’d said many times, and the way he lived.  

“Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams!” Karen Blixen had written. That spontaneity, so different from his prep school background, was precisely what Beard found in Africa, only to lose it after what felt like mere moments.

In 1965, when Beard settled in Kenya, recognition of the extinction crisis was largely confined to scientists. E.O. Wilson would publish his landmark book, The Theory of Island Biogeography with ecologist Robert MacArthur in 1967, explaining that animals, particularly large ones like elephants or lions, needed more land than anyone had realized.   

The first Endangered Species Act would pass the U.S. Congress virtually unremarked in 1968, the brainchild of two biologists with the ear of liberal Republicans in the Nixon administration. According to contemporary accounts, the politicians who supported it had no idea of the law’s far-reaching effects, or the extent of the crisis. When the law was strengthened in 1973, extinction remained a little-known phenomenon.   

In Africa, you didn’t have to be a scientist to see that the animals were disappearing. Most of America’s big animals had been driven to extinction or remnant populations a century before. In Kenya, death was right there in front of your eyes. Peter Beard’s eyes.   Beard’s premed studies had not been in vain. He’d reportedly studied population dynamics, and he understood that when a species is winnowed down to a certain number, there’s no hope that it will survive.   

In 1965, Beard, only twenty-seven, published his first book of text and photographs: The End of the Game: The Last Word from Paradise. The book was a passionate collage of warnings that the world was facing the Sixth Great Extinction: the loss of at least half the world’s mammal species and untold varieties of plants and insects. A genocide, if you will, far in excess of any events given that name, this extinction episode is almost entirely caused by humans. 

Art historians see Beard as obsessed with death, and that’s not wrong. But that obsession manifested itself in the loss of the natural world. Beard was ahead of his time, a terrible fate for an artist and sensitive people generally. In the last 30 years, successive international science panels were warning that extinction poses a threat equal to climate change; the two operate synergistically, and the forecast is dire. Yet extinction remains largely ignored.   

During World War II, Beard’s father had served in the military. The family followed him to Maxwell Air Force base outside Montgomery, Alabama. From accounts of that time, the young Peter Beard barely attended school, spending most of his time in the Southern pine woods and bringing home critters he’d found. 

Later, Beard would tell talk show host Charlie Rose: “Until we figure out the principles of art and nature, two subjects that we dismiss in kindergarten, we’re dead.” It was around the time Beard was in kindergarten that he ignored school and hied himself off to the woods. 

Art would come later.

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When he was out of Yale and free to embark on his real education, Beard didn’t confine his apprenticeships to artists. In his twenties and thirties, he worked as an unpaid assistant to Kenya’s Great White Hunters, the British outdoorsmen who translated their bush skills to conservation work. The man known for carousing at Studio 54 (and in his 70s, at Nobu and the Sanctuary Hotel)  subsisted on Ritz crackers and canned tuna while he studied elephants in Tsavo National Park, tracked elephants and hippos in Uganda, and wrangled crocodiles for the Kenyan government. When he wasn’t with his mentors in Kenyan conservation, he would disappear with his African guide, into places where there were, decidedly, no paparazzi.  

In his review of The End of the Game, New York Times reporter Anthony Lukas noted that Beard had set a new standard for wildlife photography. “These are not ‘pretty” Walt Disney shots,” Lukas wrote, highlighting Beard’s warning about “the remorseless removal of the central symbol of African life, the animal.”   

“He warns that the continued slaughter could have consequences far beyond the destruction of the great herds of buffalo and wildebeest which once roamed across the East African plains,” Lukas wrote. “Eventually, he says, it will bring about ‘the final dying, the end of all nature’s processes, patterns, cycles and balances.’"   

The causes of that slaughter were not easily addressed. In colonial Kenya, when the British realized the game animals were overhunted, their response was to institute a feudal system not unlike Britain’s, instituting game laws and excluding Kenya’s traditional hunters from the vast swaths of land they controlled.   

After Kenya won its independence in 1961, the country faced a different problem. Parks and protected areas were postage stamps compared to the big country that elephants and lions - and Maasai cattle - once roamed. In the twentieth century, human encroachment into wilderness - habitant destruction - became the largest driver behind extinction in Kenya, as it was throughout the world.  

In 1971, the worst drought in decades was killing elephants in Tsavo national park. The park’s director, a British ex-military officer named David Sheldrick, refused to intervene by culling - shooting a certain number of elephants — the remedy that Beard and his mentors believed was necessary. (That was conservation theory at the time; now more is known and there are other methods to reduce populations when the food supply runs out.)  

Sheldrick refused to allow Beard into the park but the brash American wasn’t deterred. Hiring a single-engine Cessna, Beard made aerial photographs that had a timeless quality, grimly poetic portraits of boneyards, misery, and mass death, eerily reminiscent of images by the first photographers to enter Auschwitz. Appearing in the revised 1977 edition of The End of Game, they gave Beard a foothold in the art world.  

The same year Beard had a solo show at The International Museum of Photography in New York. By them, Beard was a celebrity, touring with the Rolling Stones, hanging out with Andy Warhol. At a party at Warhol’s Factory, he sat with Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello for hours, talking about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.   

“He was absolutely mesmerizing,” Colacello told Town and Country magazine, “and when I told Andy about it, he said, ‘Oh, you’ve fallen for him, too.’”  He had that effect. As a teenager, I remember reading about Beard in Vogue, a dashing, shirtless figure, a character who combined art, adventure, and glamour in the days of Diana Vreeland, before elitism became crass. In those photographs, in my memory, he was always in motion. 

 “It’s Such a Waste, Sleep” 

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Minnie Cushing and Peter Beard on their wedding day

There were, of course, the women.  After his divorce from the socially appropriate Minnie Cushing and a subsequent barbiturate overdose landed him in Payne Whitney, the mental institution for genteel maniacs, he married Cheryl Tiegs, the first model to appear twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. The relationship was volatile. Beard disappeared for days at a time, a habit he never lost (his nickname was “Walkabout”) but Tiegs later called Beard the love of her life.   

“It was the highs and the lows,” she recalled in an interview with People magazine after his death. “The highs were just the most romantic I’ve ever [had]. He changed my life in many ways, just by being Peter. But I couldn’t put up with the other side.”  

The list of Beard’s lovers is a who’s who of beautiful women: Candice Bergen, Carol Bouquet, Lee Radziwill. Yet when asked by an interviewer about the most beautiful women he’d seen, he talked about archetypes from his  youth: fleeting glimpses of the Mexican actress Linda Christian and the supermodel of her day, Suzy Parker.   

In his 50s, Beard married Nejma Khanum, the daughter of an Afghan judge. A strictly brought up Muslim, Nejma would stay with Beard despite a well-publicized separation and many infidelities. In a 1996 Vanity Fair profile written during his separation from Nejma, Leslie Bennetts describes Beard emerging from his safari tent at Hog Ranch with not one, not two, but four girls. Or was it five? 

"Did they all sleep in your bed?" Beard nods, grinning. "Wasn't it crowded?" "We were very cozy." "Aren't you tired?” "It's such a waste, sleep," he says dismissively. "You're just lying there.” 

It all sounds so offhand. Gillies Turle admiringly described Beard staying up all night making collages and drawing at Hog Ranch.  When I asked if Beard might be bipolar, Turle scoffed in his velly British way. But in Vanity Fair Stacy Stowe  reported that Beard was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013. Sleeplessness, priapism, intense creativity: textbook.  

The dry terms of a DSM diagnosis distract from what often distinguishes bipolar people: the ability to see past the ordinary to the profound. Beard once described his sensibility as “debonair morbidity.” That isn’t a bad way to characterize some of his work: the photographs of the model Veruschka, arms akimbo, standing over a massive rhino, Iman mirroring the predatory gaze of a leopard.   Most of all, the Tsavo photographs.  As the years went on, Beard became increasingly angry about losses in the natural world, and specifically, the failure of conservation in Kenya. Any pretense of debonair morbidity evaporated when he talked about extinction.   

The mass death of Tsavo’s elephants exemplified everything that was wrong with conservation: the self-serving emphasis on fundraising, the soppy sentimentalism that raised money to “give an elephant a drink” when the loss of habitat was killing thousands of them in a slow agony of starvation.   It was easy to blame poachers, but the real problem was people. For Beard, one particular person stuck in his craw. Richard Leakey.  

 Mr. Leakey  

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In 1989, under pressure from Western nations and institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Kenya’s president Daniel arap Moi had issued a shoot-to-kill order against poachers. To win back the confidence of Western funders, he appointed Richard Leakey to head the Kenya Wildlife Service.   

Like Turle and Beard, Richard was the second son of a prominent family. Louis Leakey, his father,  had discovered human origins in Africa. Louis ran Kenya’s National Museum, while Richard's mother Mary, some said, was the better scientist. Beaten and spat on in his tony British public school in Nairobi because he had black friends, Richard didn’t have an easy time of it. A classic  middle child, he dropped out of high school and completed only one year of university. His real education came from working in the field with his parents, and he made significant finds of early hominid fossils while still in his twenties.   

Louis Leakey was a true polymath, but the kind of man, according to at least one colleague, who needed to be an authority on everything. Richard seemed to carry a lifelong sense of inferiority about his intellect. All the Leakey children had worked in the field with their parents, learning anthropology via experience, but Richard’s real talent lay in politics — and publicity.  The Leakeys had never been part of the aristocratic White Mischief crowd. Louis was the son of a missionary who grew up among the Kikuyu, the ethnic group of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and the country’s current president, Kenyatta’s son Uhuru. Louis Leakey, famously, wrote that as a boy, he dreamed in Kikuyu, and during the Mau Mau rebellion, he was tapped to translate at the trial of Kenyatta.   

Kenyatta was gifted academically - he had studied in London with Malinowski, in fact, - but he was also pragmatic. Unlike some other post-colonial leaders, he did not expel the former colonialists, realizing their expertise was needed to keep the country’s economy running.  After independence, Leakey and Kenyatta had a tete a tete to iron out any ill feeling, or,  one might term it, make a deal. Kenyatta tapped Leakey to run the country’s museum. 

Like Kenyatta himself, who changed his name and his wife, depending on whether he was studying in Britain or brandishing the mantle of indigenous rights, Leakey was a code-switcher. His son would become a  convenient conduit to the white world in the form of foreign aid. Richard Leakey's  family history was deeply intertwined with Kenya’s, but he  talked the talk, and he did it in a tony British accent.Like many countries in the Global South, Kenya was, and remains, addicted to predatory loans pushed by international development banks, so this role was not  to be taken lightly.   

After his appointment to head Kenya’s beleaguered game managment agency, Leakey held a public burning of 12 tons of confiscated ivory, a media event to signal the country’s commitment to ending poaching. Raising millions from Western donors, Leakey turned the Kenya Wildlife Service into a paramilitary organization. The remedy harked back to the old colonial days, and betrayed Leakey’s ignorance of modern conservation theory. Perhaps it also indicated that Leakey was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bully.  

In Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Raymond Bonner’s 1993 book, At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife, he wrote: Thirty suspected poachers were killed in the next four months - no game rangers died - and the ‘enemy’s’ body count continued to rise, one poacher killed on the average of every four days during Leakey’s first year.”  

In his defense, Leakey told reporters that many of the poachers were Somali bandits armed with automatic weapons. It's quite likely that this is true, so Kenya's rangers would have been vulnerable and outgunned if they had tried to stop poaching without the heavy weaponry and vehicles provided by the West. And it was President Moi who issued the shoot to kill order, before Leakey took office. 

The reality is that Leakey did manage to stem the poaching epidemic, which didn't resurge until the 2000s.  There is one crucial detail:  state-sanctioned killing wasn't the only reason he succeeded. According to sources in Kenya, Leakey’s  reportedly set up a back channel to halt the involvement of Kenya’s powerful families in the ivory trade. 

The alienation of native Kenyans from conservation that had begun during the colonial era. The poaching crackdown only intensified it.

Traditional hunters targeted by Leakey’s poaching patrols weren’t the only ones unhappy with  transforming the KWS into a paramilitary organization. Peter Beard had known Leakey slightly, but now the swaggering politician was becoming an obsession. Beard understood that Kenya's traditional hunters had evolved a system of game managment over thousands of years, and the West's meddling had been largely counterproductive. He considered Leakey's ivory burn an empty  publicity stunt.   

“Leakey’s basic problem is that he simply doesn’t tell the truth,” Beard told his biographer Jon Bowermaster. And that was the least of it. One of Beard’s  nicknames for Leakey was “Leaking Faucet.” After Leakey’s lower legs had been amputated after a plane crash, Beard started calling him “Stumpy.” Leakey was no kinder. His nickname for Beard was “Weird Beard,” according to Nairobi gossip.  

Leakey has acknowledged, with regret, that a tendency to overreach was his fatal flaw. After wooing funding from the West, $140 million from the World Bank alone for his anti-poaching efforts, Leakey went after corruption in the Kenya Wildlife Service itself. He didn't go for half-measures, firing 1640 agency employees. President Daniel arap Moi reacted categorically: Leakey was out.

More accurately, Leakey was back at Kenya’s National Museum. The pattern would be repeated. After starting his own political party and winning a seat in Parliament, President Moi persuaded Leakey to become head of Kenya's Civil Service, making him the country's second most powerful politician. Once again, Leakey attacked corruption. Instead of going after a handful of unpopular ministers, he went for broke, presenting Moi with files detailing corruption of 12 of the presidents 15 ministers. They stayed. Leakey left.

The failure must have rankled. At least in the museum Leakey had absolute power. To this day, museum staff resent Leakey's high-handededness. He no longer holds an official post yet he continues to wield power. Fear of his retaliation affects decisions made by museum staff.

Gillies Turle didn't let this affect him. Just as he had doubled down in the London casinos, he kept expecting, somehow, the arrival of good fortune.

Susan Zakin is the founder of Journal of the Plague Year. She covered the environment for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and later wrote about politics in Africa. Her first book, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, told the story of radical environmentalists who were among the first to recognize the extinction crisis.

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