Richard Leakey's parents famously excavated the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and he, himself, grew up to become a distinguished paleontologist. Having established his name in a field concerned with the ancient past, he became increasingly concerned with the present and future. He'd spent much of his life in rural East Africa, gaining first-hand experience of that region's extraordinary wildlife, and he knew that it was in trouble.
Poaching for ivory, for instance, had reduced Kenya's elephant population from 65,000 in 1979 to just 17,000 by 1989 when Leakey was appointed head of Kenya's Wildlife Conservation Department by then President Daniel arap Moi [source: Perlez]. In that role, Leakey was notified that 12 tons (10.8 metric tons) of ivory had been seized from smugglers. Some people urged Leakey to sell the stash — it would have fetched around $3 million, which could be plowed back into conservation work. It made sense in lemons-into-lemonade kind of way.
But Leakey was having none of it. Instead, in 1989 he built a great tower from the huge tusks, doused them in gasoline and President Moi lit it up. The ivory bonfire burned and burned and as it did so, the news went around the world and led to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) banning ivory sales. Just as Leakey had hoped, the publicity generated by his bonfire of the ivories alerted the world to the plight of the elephants.
And in the wake of the burning and the ban, the bottom fell out of the ivory market. Instead of losing thousands of elephants a year, Kenya reported only about 100 killed in 1990 [source: Schiffman]. The numbers stayed low for about a decade until several African countries persuaded CITES to let them sell the ivory that had been sitting around. Prices went back up, cartels got involved and poaching regained traction.
In 1999, Leakey became Kenya's cabinet secretary and in 2015 he was back in the conservation business as chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). In 2016, he orchestrated another burn, this time it was 100 tons (90 metric tons) of ivory going up in smoke [source: Schiffman]. Similar burns in other countries followed.
In December of 2017, China, the world's largest market for ivory announced that it was closing all domestic ivory markets [source: Humane Society International]. This was the fulfillment of an agreement made between China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015, but it's not hard to see that the negative attention brought to the ivory trade by activists like Leakey are the background to this historic shift.
But Sorensen of the CIC doesn't believe that Kenya is not a good model to emulate when it comes to conservation. "Kenya banned hunting in 1977 and since has not seen improvement in its wildlife populations, but rather has less protection on the ground (hunters themselves being in the field are a deterrent to poachers) and are still seeing wildlife loss as a result of that," she says.