Return to site

The Secret Life of Peter Beard, Part Two

Susan Zakin

· LONG PLAYER

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.

Maasailand

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...

He indicates that he knows of my research on the Okiek. He sits on the edge of his chair wanting to finish up our conversation before it has hardly begun by responding in short answers. He gives no response to some leading political questions. So I explained the survey I was doing of the Okiek and gave him a copy of it. Showed him my travel route.

He acted like he didn't have specific information on areas or Dorobo. But he gave me names of three people in his department to see...

 

I mention that I had been shown some unusual Maasai things belonging to a Mr. Gillies Turle. He responded "I am very suspicious of that man, I don't know what he is up to. he had an appointment with me and canceled saying he was sick. But maybe he was just avoiding seeing me about these things. I am very dubious about their authenticity. I think they are new and faked with smoke to look old. I know the rhino rungu is new. I have traced a rhino kill to it. That is a very serious matter. I have never heard of these things, some of the early settlers collected from the Maasai and they would have some of these if they were real. How do you know this Turle?

I was given his address in Nairobi as a contact to meet Peter Beard/.

Oh, I didn't know they knew each other.

I guess they must if the address is the same.

 Do you know Peter Beard? 

No, only met him for the first time when I just arrived in Nairobi.

 Well I am very suspicious of him. He is a great faker [i.e. don't believe what he shows or tells you]. He is an artist you know.    

According to the notes he scribbled as soon as he returned to his car, Blackburn mentioned that Turle had donated part of his collection to the National Museum. Leakey responded that he thinks this was a clever ploy. Leakey ordered him to wait while he went into another room. Returning with a cardboard box, Leakey turned it upside down, dumping a pile of carved pieces on his desk.

Leakey told him to take the objects into the field and figure out where the “fakes” had come from. Worried about having contraband items in his possession, Blackburn refused, telling Leakey he’d rely on photographs.

Blackburn had spent his career avoiding conflict. He didn’t want to take on Leakey. But he, too, was curious. Carrying Beard’s photographs and some of his own, he headed out to talk to the Maasai.

At the end of June, Rod interviewed Taiyanna Ole Ol-onana. Taiyanna was the last living son of the Maasai’s most famous diviner and leader, Ol-onana. Ol-onana, whose name means “the gentle one” in Maa, had been the principal laibon and paramount chief of the Loita Maasai until his death in 1911. Rod estimated that Taiyanna, one of his younger sons, was about eighty-five when they spoke in 1990.

The two men sat under a wizened little acacia tree for four hours ”in the course of the conversation…during which a cow gave birth to calf which was nursing by the time we left.”

“The dorobo [hunter gatherers] cut these things and bring them to us,” Rod wrote that Tayianna told him.  Taiyana explained that a certain bone pipe in one photograph had been brought to his father by the dorobo.

Not only had Taiyanna identified a specific piece from the collection, he had provided the missing link. The Maasai were not hunters; their taking of wildlife was confined to initiation rituals. And they were not “makers.” How had laibons obtained the raw materials for these pipes and fetishes? Who carved them? According to Taiyanna, it was the hunter gatherers who lived nearby.

Like a good reporter, Rod wanted a second source: confirmation from the dorobo themselves. Realizing that his little side-trip was turning into a full-fledged research project, he drove his Land Rover to the places that Taiyanna had mentioned.

His Okiek sources denied making the objects. Rod wasn’t sure if they were telling him the truth. Secrecy is part of the mystic tradition in virtually all traditional cultures. But the strictures that bound them to silence went deeper. British colonialists had severely punished Africans accused of witchcraft. And the hunting ban had intensified the fear.

John Lonkushu around 1990, photo by Roderic Blackburn

The informal news service of small town gossip was remarkably efficient. When Rod stopped at his usual gas station for fuel and supplies, the young man behind the counter asked about his work. He had heard that Rod was looking for someone who knew about certain kinds of objects.

The young man’s name was John Lonkushu. He was Saleita, hunter gatherers who, along with the Okiek, inhabited the area Taiyanna had identified as the source of the objects.

Rod Blackburn described their meeting this way:

I told him of my trip there and how no one knew about these objects, to which he calmly said "Oh, I know about those things."

 

I stared at this bright-eyed young man who could hardly have been more than 25 thinking, how could he at this tender age know what his elders do not? I showed him the photographs and he, to my great surprise, began to tell me what the objects were, generally confirming what Taiyana had said about them.

 

How is it you know so much about these I asked? He went on to explain that his grandfather had been a kind of loibon for the Saleta, had been very knowledgeable about medicines and curing, and had made and used these bone objects himself and traded them and medicines to the Maasai loibons in the Loita Hills. Even, he said, his father knew a lot about these things.

 

Is he alive I ask? Yes, he said, and he will be in Narok in a couple days and you can talk with him.

 

I shook my head in amazement at this accidental meeting. Finally, I exclaimed, the one person among the Dorobo who knows about these things, his father, and he is about to be dropped into my lap by pure chance.

 

John, for that was his name, smiled and glanced at me askance, softly saying "Maybe not by chance".

Rod Blackburn’s lucky encounter with John Lonkushu could have been a simple story. But what happened next was anything but simple. The Bones, as Rod Blackburn came to call them, became a screen onto which Westerners projected love, ambition, jealousy, and, deepest of all, grief.

Carved from rhino horn, ivory tusks, and the bones of giraffes, antelope, and wildebeest, Rod sometimes only half-joking remarked that the Bones seemed to possess power, even if it was only in the minds of the people who fought over them.

And just as it did in Maasailand, that power, whether real or imaginary, might cure and protect, but it could also destroy. They harmed Beard and Rod Blackburn, but those men went on with their lives. They almost destroyed Gillies Turle. 

High Crimes or Misdemeanors?

Gillies Turle with the Maasai laibon Ole Kiapi

In 1992, Alfred A. Knopf published The Art of the Maasai, the book about the artifacts and Turle’s experiences with the Maasai, with Beard’s photographs and Turle’s text. What comes through is an evocation of a way of life that was disappearing, a life offering transcendence and a sense of proportion, the peace that comes from connection rather than constant anxiety. It is not just the animals who suffer when the landscape dies. Or rather it is, because we, too, are animals.  

There was a flurry of attention, much of it negative. A virtual bar fight broke out in the pages of African Arts, a quasi-academic journal published by the University of California Los Angeles. According to one anthropologist, the general reaction was that Beard and Turle were in it for the money.

Turle freely admits that he had hoped to sell much of the collection to museums; he still would like to produce replicas of the artifacts like the turquoise hippopotamus and jewelry sold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He estimates that he spent about $200,000 on the collection, and with court fees, even though Beard pitched in, his compulsion practically bankrupted him.

If Turle’s doggedness in the face of legal jeopardy is any indication, the objects meant far more than a business proposition. For the second son, they were a chance to do something valuable with his life. The collection was a validation both for his reckless streak and his aesthetic. And like any aesthete, petty concerns paled in relation to the Absolute.

“I was there with the money, the connections, and the nerve to pick these pieces up, knowing it was gray territory,” Turle said. “You couldn’t put this collection together again. I was going around with the Maasai in those days. I was going to the ceremonies. My friend was the circumciser. I knew it was the end of things.”   

American journalist Bill Kurtis went on the road with Turle, visiting laibons in Kenya and Tanzania for a PBS documentary called “Secrets of an Ancient Culture.” Kurtis, a respected TV anchorman in Chicago and winner of the William Allen White award, hired safari guide Peter Jones to make arrangements for the film crew.

Like Richard Leakey, Jones was the son of a scientist who possessed little formal schooling. Coincidentally, he had a connection to the Leakey family. As a young man, he had worked on the field crew of Mary Leakey, Richard's mother.

Jones was dubious about the provenance of the objects. After the video shoot, he and his wife, an American heiress named Margot Kiser (then Kiser-Jones), asked Turle to introduce them to the laibons in the Loita Hills. According to Turle, the couple insisted on bringing their own interpreter, who created tensions. The visit did not go well.

Kiser aspired to be a journalist. Scenting a story, contacted Leakey about the objects, hoping for a “scoop” on Peter Beard. She had visited Beard at Hog Ranch, according to her Instagram. Yet, apparently convinced of his guilt, she papered the Internet with comments like these on the Vogue magazine website:

"Peter Beard does NOT spend his time between Kenya and NY. The Kenyan gov relegated him PNG for eight years after it was discovered that he was had been laundering and smuggling ivory and rhino horn out of Africa. He now lives mainly in France."

She contacted Rod Blackburn by email, but after a few exchanges he ended the correspondence. His last email was uncharacteristically severe.

"Margot, it is increasingly evident to me from this and prior communications that your inquiry about these objects is not a productive approach to understanding them. You, as have some others, focus on personalities and relationships when you should focus on Maasai and Dorobo ethnography."

Not long after Kiser contacted him, Leakey ordered a second raid of Hog Ranch. This raid involved not only Kenyan police, but also agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Turle was at an ashram in India, using his still-extant military training to help with logistics at a camp treating the poor for cataracts. The same ashram, he notes wryly, that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about in Eat, Pray, Love.

“Beard and Tunney [Peter Tunney, Beard’s gallerist] were at Hog Ranch and this raid came on. I was in my ashram sort of holier than thou,” Turle recalled. “I got a telegram saying there was trouble. Beard left as quick as he could after that."

In Turle's account, Beard kept his smaller collection of objects in a suitcase. As the agents arrived, he quickly dispatched it to a friend. Then he headed out of the country.

By the time the agents reached his tent, there was nothing to confiscate, no evidence to charge anyone. Not that night. But there was a slip of paper. When they rifled Turle’s files, the agents found a receipt for a storage locker. Inside the locker were 17 tin chests containing nearly 3,000 objects.

When he returned from India, Turle was thrown into jail.

While the melodrama played out in Kenya, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents were questioning officials at the American Museum of Natural History. At Hog Ranch, the raid had yielded a letter from one of the museum's curators expressing interest in the objects. And in Chicago, agents showed up at the office of documentary filmmaker Bill Kurtis.

Kurtis said that the agents confiscated a single rungu that he had brought home as a souvenir. In the documentary, he had carefully hedged on the question of authenticity, because of the lack of experts who could validate Turle’s collection. Personally, after talking to the laibons, he had no doubt that many of the objects were antiquities that had been ritually used by the Maasai.

“So your shit detector didn’t go off?” I asked him.

“Not at all,” he answered. He seemed to find the episode faintly ridiculous. Turle felt much the same, only with more at stake.

“The ’99 raid was that they wanted to catch Peter. Peter was the big fish,” Turle said. “These agents, together with Kenyans looking for the team of poachers that I had trained and armed. It was a massive delusion.”

After more than a year, the court dropped Turle's case without reaching a verdict. Turle never knew why.

The questions remained. Could Peter Beard, the artist manqué of wild Africa, have secretly been involved in