There was no doubting Dr Richard Leakey was back at the Kenya Wildlife Service after he asked for a full status report on the organisation ahead of a board meeting later this month.
President Uhuru Kenyatta recently appointed Dr Leakey to chair the KWS board more than two decades after the veteran conservationist resigned as the director in January 1994. He was subsequently replaced by Dr David Western as the head of the KWS.
Since he left the KWS, which he founded in 1989, Dr Leakey has been vocal on matters concerning wildlife conservation and poaching.
He even wrote a book, Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s Natural Treasures (2001), about his experiences at the helm of what had been the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD) before the name was changed.
His return has sparked a mixture of apprehension and joy among staff and stakeholders.
Dr Leakey was appointed on April 27, through a special issue of the Kenya Gazette and has hit the ground running by demanding that the KWS management hand him a status report on the organisation – a list of the senior management, the financial status, a catalogue of the equipment, number and condition of vehicles and an update on ongoing projects, among other things – ahead of his first board meeting.
A source at the KWS, who spoke in confidence, told the Sunday Nation Dr Leakey said he wanted the information because he had been away from the organisation for a long time.
“But there are those who think he already has all this information and is only asking for a version from the management so that he can compare with what he has. This has created hope among those who think the organisation is being poorly run and panic among those who think they may be targeted,” the source added.
Even though the KWS staff who spoke to the Sunday Nation understand he is the chairman and not the director-general, some expect that he will play a bigger role in the day-to-day running of the organisation beyond merely waiting to chair board meetings, given his passion, forceful character and past involvement in the organisation.
“His return brings back memories of the past when Kenya provided global leadership in conservation. When he was here, he helped mobilise huge resources from the World Bank and other international donors. He brings an internationally recognised name and resource mobilisation skills,” said another official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
KWS has been criticised by conservationists for increased poaching and allegations that crooked officials may be selling ivory that KWS holds.
“The man has passion for conservation and has no time for corruption. I remember the time he was here and the organisation was facing financial difficulties. He used to come to the office as early as 5 a.m. and manually go through every single payment voucher just to counter-check,” our source said, adding the return of Dr Leakey may be good for rangers because the conservationist has “great experience working in the wild”.
But someone who worked with the 70-year-old conservationist at KWS says he may not bring the same energy to the job because of failing health and age. He walks with prosthetics since his lower legs were amputated after a suspicious plane crash in 1993.
Dr Leakey was not available for comment as he was said to have travelled abroad.
Acting KWS director-general William Kibet Kiprono prefers assuming a low profile, unlike his predecessors Dr Leakey, Dr Western and more recently Dr Julius Kipng’etich.
“Kipng’etich (who was appointed in 2005 and left in 2012) interacted a lot with staff. The current director is a bit laidback and does not interact much with staff. In fact, some question his passion for conservation,” the source said.
For that reason, the staff we spoke to think Dr Leakey’s arrival may be a good thing for KWS because he is a strong character who can complement the work of the director.
But there are also fears Dr Leakey might target officials who have opposed his civil society campaigns outside KWS over poaching.
This group of staff also fears Dr Leakey’s new tenure could herald the return of the alleged high-handedness and the adverse claims of creating parallel payrolls to reward certain individuals close to him.