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23/08/2001 13:06  - (SA)   E-mail story to a friend
Planet faces mass extinction

Cape Town - The health of the planet must become as important as anything else with the environment seen as a basic human right, according to world renowned palaeontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey.

Speaking in a lecture hall in the South Africa Museum in Cape Town, dwarfed by a 20 metre long skeleton of a blue whale, he said the current rate of extinction of species had put the planet in serious danger.

The world was losing between 50 000 and 100 000 plant, insect and animal species a year.

Only the previous five periods in history of mass extinction - the last being the death of the dinosaurs - showed the same rate of loss. "At that rate we are probably approaching a point similar to mass extinction," he said.

In addition, ignoring the unquestionable evidence of global warming, and the impact this would have on the planet, was shocking. Leakey is a third-generation Kenyan whose parents, Louis B and Mary, won world-wide fame as palaeontologists and archaeologists focusing on the search for the origins of human life in East Africa.

He is world-renown for saving Kenya's elephants from poachers, and was a leader of the successful international movement to reduce the black-market sale of ivory.

Leakey's work in the field of paleo-anthropology has contributed immensely to the study of human evolution.

His expeditions have uncovered more than 200 fossils of early hominines - extinct relatives of modern humans - around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, including the 1,6-million-year-old "Turkana Boy".

Leakey said preserving land and conserving its wildlife were an "absolute necessity" and people had to decide exactly how much land should be allocated to conservation.

Given the political reality in many African countries where the majority were landless this would become a major issue. "If there is a political surge to redistribute land, it is critical that you don't target land that is critical to preserve.

"We have to decide how much land is needed for conservation and how much for farmland."

He said he had become aware during his time as the head of Kenya's civil service, that given the poverty and spread of disease, it was often difficult to justify additional spending on conservation.

Leakey resigned in March this year after two years as head of the Kenyan civil service.

However, he said it was unacceptable that modern governments did not make sufficient provision to leave the planet at least the same for future generations.

"It is easier to prevent than to cure," he said.

The next 10 years, considering the loss of species, the threat of Aids and the possibility of other mutated diseases, were critical for the planet.

Leakey was director of the National Museums of Kenya from 1968 to 1989, when he was appointed director of the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS).

He resigned as director of the KWS in 1994 following a dispute over political control of the unit, but was later re-appointed.

Leakey, who lost both legs in a plane crash in 1993, was a member of the opposition political party - Safina (Swahili for "Noah's Ark), which he founded - in Kenya's Parliament until 1998.

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