Interview: Fighting for survival: Is Richard Leakey an inspired conservationist or a good self-publicist? In his first interview after a near-fatal plane crash, the champion of African wildlife talks to Fiammetta Rocco

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RICHARD LEAKEY - fossil-finder, animal conservationist and transatlantic media star - is in a hospital bed in Nottingham, with a faded African kikoi around his middle. The steel rods protruding from his bandaged limbs are secured by what can only be described as foot-scaffolding. Despite the pain, Leakey smiles at the nurse changing his dressings. 'Straighten the leg out a bit. I need to see what you're doing.'

Early last month, a small aircraft Leakey was piloting crashed while approaching Nairobi. As the undercarriage buckled, Leakey's legs were driven into the muddy earth. Septicaemia set in, and he was flown to Britain in an air-ambulance laid on by Prince Claus of the Netherlands.

Leakey's routine is dominated by the surgical knife. Today, it's a skin graft; later there will be a bone graft from his hip to his right leg. In just under a fortnight, Christopher Colson - one of the surgeons who operated on Prince Charles's arm after his polo accident - will amputate Leakey's left leg just below the knee. Leakey has lost weight, which he needed to, but the colour has returned to his face. He is stoical about his leg, saying that learning to live without it will be a fresh challenge.

'Even losing both legs would not reduce my effectiveness.'

In his first interview since the crash, Leakey is anxious to dispel any notion that he won't be returning to his job as director of Kenya Wildilfe Service, the agency that oversees all Kenya's conservation. Whether he can continue in the long term is uncertain. 'That's the dollars 64,000 question. I say yes. Everybody else says no. I said KWS could be successful, and everybody said no. I said we can stop the ivory trade and everybody said no. I think my work will go on. Everybody says no. We will see.'

CLEARLY, Leakey's injuries have not dimmed his rambunctious nature, which revels in proving people wrong. Richard Erskine Frere Leakey was born in 1944, with Africa and pugnacity in the blood in equal measure. His parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, were the palaeontologists whose findings in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge proved that mankind came from Africa, a notion that revolted colonial Europeans.

The young Leakey, the second of three brothers, refused at first to join the family business, but soon changed his mind. His first coup came when he virtually stole a pounds 16,000 research grant from under his father's nose. At 23, unbeknown to his father, Richard asked Louis Leakey's backers - the National Geographic Society - to finance research at Koobi Fora on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. 'My father was shocked.'

Leakey had virtually no formal education, but his backers' faith in his energy and chutzpah was soon rewarded. Koobi Fora is one of the great treasure troves of hominid relics, some of them 3 million years old. Leakey's team has uncovered more than 400 pieces of bone, the remains of perhaps 200 of our ancient ancestors. Leakey starred in the BBC documentary series The Making of Mankind, and became a household name.

Leakey's critics accuse him of being too cavalier with fossil-dating, and his work on early man is rife with controversy. He is either an egotistical ignoramus with a talent for self-publicity or the world's last great amateur scientist, who is right far more often than better-trained rivals. Without the piquancy of a row, mutter his critics, the study of human fossils would have languished in a backwater and Leakey's books would never have joined the bestseller lists.

Leakey's principal rival is the American Donald Johansen. Reading Johansen's two bestsellers, Lucy's Child and Lucy, it is easy to see how each of the two fossil-finders vied to prove that he had discovered the oldest human fossil.

To the layman, their differences are minimal. They agree man's evolution began about 7 million years ago with a common ape ancestor. About 1.5 million years ago, his descendant - homo erectus - first began walking upright because changes in climate thinned forests and forced him out of the trees. Between those dates there lived at least two lines of closely related ape-men. All they disagree on is how early the split occurred, and whether there were two lines or up to four.

In his most recent book, Origins Reconsidered, Leakey declared support for one of the most popular current theories: that what made people different from other apes was that they reached a critical threshold of imagination that enabled them to get progressively better at deceiving their fellows: the so-called Machiavelli hypothesis.

In 1974, Leakey was named director of National Museums of Kenya, a job he only gave up in 1989 when President Daniel arap Moi asked him to head the new KWS.

The KWS appointment surprised many. Leakey had long been interested in conservation, in an amateur way, but had never worked in that field. And he was not in good health. Severe kidney disease had forced him, in 1980, to accept an organ from his politician brother, Philip, despite the fact that the two brothers got on badly and had barely spoken to each other for a decade.

A lifelong workaholic, Leakey has not let his health interrupt his schedule. He rises at 4am, is at his desk before sunrise, and lists no recreations in his entry in Who's Who. Until six weeks ago, he always piloted his own plane.

As director of KWS, Leakey is one the world's leading voices on conservation. Culling is one that always raises hackles among animal rights supporters. Leakey ackowledges that culling is, so far, the best way of managing animal numbers, but pronounces himself both philosopher and a pragmatist.

'It's one thing to cull deer or musk- ox or wildebeest, which are relatively unthinking animals and have far less ability to comprehend sadness or grief. But elephants are a highly intelligent species. They really do have a capacity to think about life, about themselves and about their surroundings and their families. They require a different moral code.' Not surprisingly, Leakey keenly supports research into contraception for managing elephant populations.

The fate of the elephant over the past four years is emblematic of Leakey's tenure at KWS. By 1989, commercial poaching had reduced Africa's elephant population by half to 600,000. The dramatic decision to impose a worldwide ban on ivory trading - taken amid raging controversy in 1989 - saved it from the threat of extinction.

One of Leakey's achievements has been to gain the President's backing for a nationwide 'shoot-to-kill' policy to deal with the commercial poachers who were threatening not just the elephants, but all of Kenya's wildlife. Today, Leakey says 100 elephants are killed every year in Kenya, 20 by poachers, the rest by farmers whose crops risk being damaged by animals or KWS rangers protecting villagers.

Leakey also clamped down on corruption and instituted a clean-out of the old wildlife department, sacking 1,700 people in the process. The move had the support of Western aid donors, but it was not popular locally. The former American ambassador, Smith Hempstone, says he called on President Moi to tell him there would be trouble if Leakey was not given a free hand. Today, KWS is a leaner and more efficient organisation: Leakey has insisted that his professional staff are paid the same salaries they would earn in the private sector. 'We have about 40 Africans who are now on pounds 17,000 or more,' he says.

Leakey has also played a leading role in persuading international donors, led by the World Bank, to commit dollars 150m ( pounds 100m) to the first half of an eight-year programme aimed at improving wildlife conservation in Kenya and putting KWS on the road to financial self-sufficiency. A second dollars 150m is already earmarked. The loan was secured while donors were cutting off funds to Kenya unless it held democratic, multi-party elections and cleaned up its human rights act.

Leakey is unique in African conservation: he is a household name abroad, and enjoys virtually unlimited access to President Moi. His predecessor, Perez Olindo, could not even leave Nairobi without permission from his minister.

Nevertheless, Leakey is severely criticised by colleagues who brand him an egotist surrounded by yes-men. Leakey, they say, always claims a disproportionate share of credit for success. He is, they add, a good friend but a bad enemy who pushes aside anyone who challenges his authority or whose views do not tally with his own vision. But even his critics admit that only a massive ego could live through losing both kidneys, and now a leg, and survive.

EVEN in hospital, Leakey is ready to do battle with the rising criticism about conservation in East Africa. In a recent controversial book, At the Hand of Man, the American journalist Raymond Bonner argues that conservation in Kenya is dominated by highly paid white expatriates. Zimbabwe, he says, has a far better record than Kenya at taking account of Africans' needs and wishes. Leakey - who was born in Kenya, carries a Kenyan passport, and says he takes home only his pounds 250 a month Kenyan civil servants' salary - not surprisingly disagrees. 'It is a myth, commonly held by Americans, that somehow conservation is a white man's invention. That is just not true.

'It is inevitable that your do-good agencies raising money in Western capitals are going to be dominated by white Africans or expatriates. But the people who have stuck it out through thick and thin, the people who stop the illegal export of animals and birds, who stop the inappropriate destruction of rare plants, are the Africans.'

Warming to one of his favourite themes, he hoists himself up by grabbing the support frame above the bed. 'When the WWF gives dollars 10,000 which enables the Uganda National Parks to do something, it says, 'We have done blah blah blah'. They haven't done anything except provide a cheque. All right, it's important; but to suggest that the effort, the sweat, the blood and the death is not African, I think is unfair.'

Bonner's second accusation is that the ivory trade ban was a fashionable bandwagon hijacked by foreign fundraisers against the advice of the leading scientists in the field, many of whom doubted whether it would stop the commercial poaching that was decimating the elephant population.

Leakey, who was behind the very public burning of Kenya's stockpile of poached ivory in 1989 - a masterstroke that put the issue on the front pages of the world's press - does not deny that the stunt helped raise money to save widlife. But he downplays the role of the zoologists whose findings gave the ban its scientific endorsement.

'The scientists didn't achieve the ban. The ban was purely a political decision. The scientific backing for it was so pooh-poohed by the opposition to it that it didn't mean anything. The number of elephants being slaughtered was unbelievable. There was blood all over the floor. It was clear that unless we knocked down the price of ivory, we were going to lose elephants in most of Kenya. We didn't need a scientist to tell us that.'

If Leakey is philosophical about the need to save elephant lives, he appears far more pragmatic about his own fate. When President Moi visited him in Nairobi hospital the day of the crash, he told Leakey: 'You can be sure that I am going to pray for you.' The champion of evolution replied: 'No, please don't do that. You know I don't believe in it.' Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, though, he added: 'There are other things you can do for me.'

(Photograph omitted)