Return to site

The Secret Life of Peter Beard, Part Two

Susan Zakin

Missed Part One? Read it here.

Memory Made Tangible

By the late 1980s, Turle was deep in his collecting mania. Channeling his British schoolboy rectitude, he started applying for permits for his burgeoning collection. One certificate authenticated 240 objects. He also  donated pieces from his collection to national museums in Kenya and Tanzania. 

Turle was increasingly aware that Kenya was changing. Wildlife populations were plummeting while human population rose inexorably. By 2016, researchers found that populations of Kenya's most common wild animals had dropped by two-thirds. The media loved covering elephants, but less iconic but equally valuable species were verging on extinction: wildebeest, giraffe, Grevy's zebra, the delicate Hirola, a type of hartebeest living in proximity to the similarly endangered Boni people, hunter gatherers on the Kenya-Somalia border.

America was captive to Wall Street's new credo: Greed is Good - or, one might argue, Greed is God. Kenya was no different. Corruption, which had started with Jomo Kenyatta, was more deeply entrenched.

Beard was increasingly bitter and pessimistic, according to his biographer Jon Bowermaster. He landed an assignment that brought him to southern Africa, where conservation efforts were more successful. In Namibia, he met Garth Owen-Smith and Maggie Jacobsohn, a couple who had spent decades working with the Himba people to protect desert elephants and lions.

Owen-Smith hadn't started out as a professional conservationist. Arriving from South Africa in the 1960s, he had simply seen work to be done. Jacobsohn arrived to interview him and stayed; her anthropology background stood her in good stead with the locals. Thanks to their efforts, poaching halted without bloodshed.

Back in Kenya, Beard found refuge with people whose lives were intertwined with the animals who made a landscape a living thing. Traveling with Turle on his trips to Maasailand, he shot photographs of the carved bones and horns, tools of the laiboni. They embodied his aesthetic. Andrea Whittle described it in W magazine as “memory made tangible.”

Turle and Beard found it strange that the Maasai ritual diviners didn't show up in scholarship by Western anthropologists. Turle found one reference in a 1905 book, The Maasai: Their Language and Folklore, by British colonial administrator Alfred Claude Hollis. “Old men amongst the Masai make pipes of goats' bones, rhinoceros horns, or pieces of wood,” Hollis had written.

Hollis described “medicine-men” who cast stones in buffalo horns, adding this note:

“Lastly, if a rhinoceros is killed, its horn is taken and carved into clubs, which are used for beating the he-goats and bulls with. The counsellors’ clubs are also made of rhinoceros horn.”

This explained the rhino horn rungu. But unless Turle could prove that his rapidly growing collection—and Beard’s—were genuine antiquities, it was almost certainly illegal to buy or sell them. Perhaps it was even illegal to possess them. Rhinos were endangered, and protected under the CITES treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Under CITES, it was also illegal to trade in ivory.

The two “eager schoolboys” were skirting Kenyan law, too. In the 1970s, animal rights groups had convinced the Kenyan government to ban hunting and the buying or selling wildlife parts. The bans did nothing to help Kenya's animals; in fact, they may have made the situation worse. Hunting groups point out, not without justice, that since hunting was banned in Kenya in 1977, wildlife populations have dropped 70 percent.

A fluffier version of British colonialism, interference by Western animal rights activists and international banks turned traditional hunters into criminals, leaving the field clear for poaching operations run by the country’s elite in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Beard was well aware of this colossal blunder. Decried as an elitist because of his insistence that overpopulation was going to destroy the world, Beard had spent much of his young manhood in the bush with African guides. He understood the inequities of Kenya’s targeting of traditional hunters, the latest iteration of the cultural genocide started by the British.

“Most of the elephants in Tsavo depended on traditional hunters, people we labeled as poachers, to keep their numbers down so the trees didn’t completely go and they had that woodland cover to take them through the drought,” Beard told documentary filmmaker Lars Brunn in 1996.

“But of course poachers had to be eliminated in our way of thinking. We eradicated traditional hunters. The population went up and ate the habitat. We saved the game! We were saving the game, buying an elephant a drink, water for wild animals. All of our do-gooder causes destroyed the balance, the equilibrium and the age-old systems of a dynamic mosaic, a rich, diverse habitat.


“And we ended up with a desert and 35 to 45,000 dead elephants in the biggest national park where you’re supposed to be saving. We gave it the human touch,” he wound up, more sadness than bitterness in his voice.

Elephant Bones at Sala Gate, Galana (Tsavo Die-Off), 1976

Louis Leakey's Son

Convinced the Maasai laibon tradition had enormous aesthetic and anthropological value, Beard persuaded a United Nations official to include the artifacts in an exhibit of indigenous art at U.N. headquarters in New York. Turle landed a book contract from Alfred A. Knopf. The two men were, as they say, stoked.

They had reason to be optimistic. In early 1990, Turle had received a letter from Andrew Cheptum at the National Museum in Nairobi thanking him for donating 144 artifacts to the museum. Cheptum noted that an expert at the Institute for African Studies had determined the objects were used between the 1850s and 1940s, “for practicing medicine and divining purposes.”

Turle needed additional certificates to send pieces to  United Nations headquarters in New York. When he arrived at the National Museum, he didn’t anticipate problems. But Andrew Cheptum’s letter had been sent before Leakey’s return to the museum.  

“I took in a bunch of artifacts and I sat in front of him,” Turle recalls. “He had a huge desk, big enough to play ping pong on. I was pulling things out of my bag, saying, ‘Hey, look at this.’” 

As Turle remembers it, Leakey said, ‘We know who killed, carved and smoked your last five rhinoceros rungus. He had your name and address in his pocket.’”  

“My mouth dried up,” Turle recalls. He rallied, asking Leakey why he hadn’t arrested the man. More to the point, why would a poacher sell rhino horn to Gillies Turle for $150, roughly what he was paying for these objects, when rhino horn was considered an aphrodisiac in China and Vietnam and fetching $60,000 a kilo? “Who on earth is going to kill a rhinoceros, and shave the horn down to a thin, artistic, incredibly elegant medicinal pipe?”   

Leakey acknowledged that part of the collection might be old, according to Turle. Turle asked if Leakey had any idea which would qualify as antiquities and which might have been carved by an imitator. There was no answer, according to Turle. The meeting ended without a resolution.

Not long afterwards, the Kenya Wildlife Service raided Hog Ranch. Agents confiscated 15 rungus made of rhino horn, but left behind the bone and horn objects, Turle recalls. While Leakey was working at the museum rather than the KWS at that point, it seemed clear that Leakey had instigated the raid.   

Nobody was arrested. Not that time.

The raid might have been the end of it. But Beard wasn’t letting go of his criticisms of Leakey, and Leakey didn’t let go of Beard. For his part, Turle couldn’t stop collecting. Over the years, he had developed into an aesthete not unlike Bruce Chatwin’s obsessive collector, the fictional character in the eponymous novel Utz. Turle knew he was being reckless, but he couldn’t stop himself. 

Leakey was a formidable opponent. His long-running and highly publicized disagreement with Donald Johanson, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, over human origins had been a fixture of paleontology since the Seventies. (New York Times science reporter John Noble Wilford called their televised debate a “brawl.”)

Johanson had discovered the 3.2-million-year old "Lucy" skeleton in Ethiopia in 1974, while Leakey, in his youth, had found the 1.6-million-year-old "Turkana Boy" skeleton in Kenya. Johanson proposed that Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis, was the oldest known ancestor of human beings as well as Australopithecus, a branch of ''ape-men'' that would become extinct. If this were true, Johanson would displace the Leakeys as the discoverer of humanity’s origins.  

In 1989, Wilford wrote:  

“From Mr. Johanson's telling of the quarrel, its basis may now be less professional than personal. It reached a nadir in pettiness when he and Richard Leakey had an explosive confrontation in 1981 while taping a television show with Walter Cronkite. Recalling the argument, Mr. Johanson attributes Richard's unyielding stance to the burden he may be bearing as the son of the famous Louis Leakey.

When Leakey finally capitulated, the ultimate showman managed to turn defeat into hagiography. The two men appeared on stage together, Leakey acknowledging that Johanson had been right, in a live-streamed event at the American Museum of Natural History in 2011.

Leakey may have been wrong about Lucy, but there was one area in which his hegemony was unquestioned: publicity. To one anthropologist, Leakey's obdurate refusal to admit error had unacceptable consequences: “Leakey set back paleoanthropology decades,” he said  about the nearly 40-year feud.  

In the less well-publicized case of The Bones, Leakey was equally obdurate. He believed—or convinced himself—that the artifacts were fakes and that Turle and Beard were selling them to fund their indulgences: travel, women, and in Peter’s case, self-medicating with weed and coke, plus the odd magic mushroom. The two were perennially short of cash but Leakey, too, had found himself in straits at times. It may seem petty and implausible for a man of Leakey’s stature to take a personal grudge to the lengths of what happened next.

The real problem may have been Beard’s other art form: the rant. For Beard, Leakey represented the two things he detested most: authority and the phoniness of white savior conservation. Beard admired Graham Hancock’s 1994 book debunking international aid organizations, The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business. Later, he would cite Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo’s 2009 book critiquing foreign aid. He laid it out in the Brunn documentary, sounding particularly bitter.

“The environmentalists are like the do-gooders, the Lords of Poverty, the alms race, the cliches…The whole industry of doing good. It’s a huge cliche and to be an environmentalist is to be a joke,” he said. 

Later, Leakey himself would talk of regret at one aspect of Western interference with Kenyan conservation: the bans on hunting and the trade in wildlife objects.

“Hunting has never been stopped in Kenya, and there is more hunting in Kenya  today than at any time since independence,” Leakey said in a 2006 speech at Nairobi’s Strathmore University. “(Thousands) of animals are being killed annually with no control. Snaring, poisoning, and shooting are common things. So when you have a fear of debate about hunting, please don’t think there is no hunting. Think of a policy to regulate it, so that we can make it sustainable.”   

Polite as Beard usually was, he didn’t mince words once he got going. According to Gillies Turle, Beard railed endlessly about Leakey, not caring who was listening. Later Beard would say that Leakey was a perfectly decent companion on a safari. He couldn’t understand why Leakey had it in for him. Could it have been the fact that Beard was bad-mouthing him to anyone who would listen?

Beard’s arguments made sense, in a purist way. By brokering funds from the World Bank and other institutions with their own ideas about poaching and conservation, Leakey had enabled Western influence on Kenyan conservation.

Countries like South Africa and Namibia were using a more homegrown approach and succeeding in keeping wildlife populations viable by giving Africans an economic stake in conservation. In some cases, this meant not only low-wage, unreliable ecotourism, but controlled hunting and “harvesting” (yes, that word) of wildlife by Africans themselves. Conservation was supporting itself, to some extent.

By contrast, Kenya, the Westerner’s dream image of Africa, was foundering. It wasn't just mythology that attracted Western dollars. Kenya had a common border with Somalia and other nations whose weak civil societies made it easy for Islamic extremists to gain a foothold. Over time, a system had developed, not just in Kenya, but in Africa generally, that balanced the West’s need for military bases with a lukewarm desire to curb corruption. Corrupt politicians skimmed funds from development loans into their Swiss bank accounts, but cracking down was dicey, involving geopolitics as well as delicate questions of national sovereignty. Evidence of effort, or, in plainer terms, window dressing, was usually enough.

In the 1990s, Leakey still thought he had a chance to make inroads against corruption. As head of Kenya's Civil Service, he might even be in line to become the country's first white African president. To accomplish anything, though, he had to keep the balls in the air. Beard ranting to a fellow Yalie who worked for the World Bank or the International Money Fund about his incompetence could sink him.

That might have been a concern. Or perhaps it was simply ego. It’s certainly possible that Leakey genuinely believed Beard was a con man.


In this tale, is Beard the villain or is Leakey? When Beard urged Rod Blackburn to apply for a permit to research the laibon artifacts, he gave Leakey credit for knowing his way around the East African bush. He also, according to Blackburn’s journal entry, called Leakey a “thief” who had diverted funding from the Danish government earmarked for the Karen Blixen Museum, part of Kenya’s system of 22 museum facilities and monuments. Beard had been on the board of the Blixen museum, so Blackburn thought the accusation worth noting. There is no documentation for this charge, but it demonstrates the inflammatory nature of Beard’s rants. Blackburn wrote this detailed account of his meeting with Leakey.

06.22.90: 1 June 22

Nairobi Appointment to see Richard Leakey. Go to R. Leakey's office at entrance to Nairobi National Park. Purpose is to acquaint him with my current research on hunter-gatherer tribes in East Africa and that I [am] now about to do a survey of those in central Kenya...