On April 30, 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya set fire to the country's stockpile of confiscated elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn. It was the largest event of its kind—105 tons of ivory worth about $100 million and 1.3 tons of horn worth $67 million went up in flames. In a way, the burn was a funeral for the more than 6,000 elephants and over 300 rhinoceroses that were poached for the contraband. More important, it was a smoke signal to convey that these materials are worthless unless they are on the animals themselves, which attract tourists and play key roles in keeping ecosystems healthy.

Tusk by tusk, horn by horn, Africa is losing its iconic wildlife. Africa's elephants have plummeted by 62 percent in the past decade alone, mostly as a result of poaching, and only 29,000 rhinos remain, down from 70,000 in 1970. They are hardly the only victims. Lion populations have dropped 43 percent during the past two decades; giraffes, which numbered 140,000 in 1999, have declined to 80,000 individuals—the list goes on and on.

To stem the destruction, Kenyatta made Richard Leakey chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in April 2015. This is not Leakey's first time with the KWS. In 1989 he was appointed to head the then fledgling wildlife service. Up to that point he was best known for his discoveries of human fossils, but he soon developed a reputation as an incorruptible and confrontational public servant. He resigned in 1994, alleging corruption among officials in the government of President Daniel arap Moi.

Now the conservation stakes are even higher. Elephants, rhinos and other species are facing more intense poaching pressure than ever before from organized criminal gangs that are racing to meet Asia's burgeoning demand for wildlife products. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN interviewed Leakey, now 72, at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he is chair of the Turkana Basin Institute, about his efforts to preserve Kenya's wild heritage. The interview has been edited for clarity. —The Editors

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Why did you, as the heir of the great family of paleontology, go into conservation?
RICHARD LEAKEY: When I studied fossils, I was dealing with species that became extinct because of climate change, because of overpredation. Today when I stand on the magnificent Kenyan landscape in the midst of so many of their successors, the survivors—now different species—it's a very powerful experience. I feel I'm at home with them. I understand myself better. I sense my place within the larger continuum of life. So the paleontology is not separate from my concern for wildlife—it is very much a part of it.

As head of the Kenya Wildlife Service from 1989 to 1994, you famously cracked down on corruption in the wildlife service and armed your rangers to combat a wave of ivory poaching, which was hitting Kenya hard at the time.
We also had to somehow impact the market. My idea was to destroy confiscated ivory by bonfire. That generated massive publicity around the fact that elephants were being killed for their teeth, which led to CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] putting an international ban on ivory sales. The ban had a big impact. The number of elephants being killed in Kenya went down from thousands a year to maybe 100 by the end of 1990, and it remained at that low level for at least a decade.

What happened to bring poaching back to the disastrous levels that exist today in much of Africa?
Once the illegal killing subsided, there was still a lot of ivory sitting around in storerooms, and some countries—South Africa in particular, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe—thought that this could earn them money if it was sold. They persuaded CITES to allow them to put it on the market. We in Kenya felt that once the ivory trade got going again, it would be very difficult for people to distinguish between a valid export document and a false one. So, very quickly, ivory was again being poached and exported out with doctored documents. The price rose sharply, and big criminal cartels started taking an interest. It was a deplorable situation.

To help deal with this crisis, you were invited back last year to chair the KWS. Why did you accept the position?
The president promised that the board and I would have a lot of freedom to make decisions that won't be interfered with politically by corrupt officials. When I started as chairman, morale in the wildlife service was abysmal. Now we're beginning to see the right people doing the right things because they feel safe; they're not going to be interfered with. In the past 11 months, Kenya has lost 94 elephants—in contrast to several hundred for the same period the previous year. We've revised Kenya's Wildlife Act to streamline management of the wildlife services, hire 1,000 additional rangers and toughen penalties for poaching. We are now recruiting and training a body of special wildlife prosecutors. We're getting new cars for our staff, fixing the roads, giving our people decent housing in the bush, providing health care and getting new equipment to tackle the poaching.

Up in Flames: A wildlife ranger looks on as pyres of confiscated elephant tusks burn in Nairobi National Park on April 30, 2016. Credit: Carl de Souza Getty Images

To protect wildlife, you also need buy-in from the local communities. How are you engaging them?
Over the past decades National Geographic, the BBC, all these big media groups have been producing documentaries on African wildlife for consumption abroad. None of these films has been shown in Kenya—ever. WildlifeDirect, a charitable organization that I founded, persuaded some film houses to give us these documentaries for free. Since January 2016 they have been airing every Saturday at 8 p.m. They are trending number one in Kenyan social media every time they are shown. WildlifeDirect also produces NTV Wild Talk, which airs on Tuesday nights. These are the first films Africans themselves have made about wildlife. You'll soon have a population in Kenya that is as much in love with these animals as people are in London, Paris and New York.

The usual rationale for game reserves in Africa is that they generate tourist dollars. Is that the KWS's rationale?
Kenyans are recognizing that the whole philosophy around wildlife has got to change. For now tourism is a major element in our economic future. It is fickle, however, and at best a medium-term help because industries will eventually take up the slack as the nation develops. But on another level, many people are coming to recognize that wild spaces where you can take a deep breath and enjoy beauty is something that every country needs. Kenyans are seeing this as their invaluable national heritage. That is far more important than tourism in the long term.

What about people in rural villages who live dangerously close to wild animals?
Kenya's human population has tripled. People are increasingly moving into areas where animals are. A lot get killed by elephant, buffalo, crocodile; crops are destroyed, and there is a certain sour feeling between humans and animals. I firmly believe that we have to fence off the national parks so that the animals cannot get into the farms and the goats and cattle of the herders can't get into the parks.

That's a pretty radical proposal.
Yes, but it may be the only one that works. The technology for fencing is very good now but expensive. We're going for concessional loans, which have low-interest rates that can be paid back in installments over 30 years, from multinational institutions like the World Bank. These fences will make it easier to deal with the poaching problem because herders' stock wandering around parks are frequent covers for poachers who pretend to be herders. It is going to take us three to five years, but when we get to the other side people will say, “Well done.” At the moment they're saying, “You're crazy.”

People in rural Kenya are mostly not seeing much of a payback from wildlife tourism. In Namibia and Botswana, community-run reserves have garnered local support. Don't you need to get average Kenyans behind the protection of wildlife?
Of course, you need to get people's support, but do you do it on the basis that when you've got a boom in tourism, the people living around the parks get a bonus and their kids go to school and then when tourism wanes, unfortunately, their kids are pulled from school? In my view, money from tourism should go to the central government and be used to build better hospitals, roads and infrastructure for the whole nation. It is not just for temporarily propping up the people who happen to live next to the park.

Do you feel a conflict about using government funds to protect wildlife when so many Kenyans are impoverished?
When I was secretary to the cabinet in Kenya, every budgeted item crossed my desk for the entire machinery of government. And many of my colleagues from my former life in wildlife said, “Couldn't you just add a little bit to our budget? It would be such a help.” And I would have to tell them, “Morally, no. When you've got so many people whose children don't go to school, without inoculations, without water, without homes even, no, I can't take any extra money from them to give to you for wildlife conservation.” That was a tough two years for me.

Now the shoe is on the other foot again.
Yes, but I appreciate how much it matters to help the people. Without tackling poverty, there is no security for anybody in our society, no institutional security, no national security—and definitely no security for our wild lands and wildlife. The national parks are there for the good of everyone. The money generated by them should be used to help all Kenyans get a better education, have better roads and infrastructure, and live longer, healthier lives.

Mombasa, Kenya's second-largest city, remains perhaps the leading port in East Africa for the export of illicit ivory to Asia. What is the Kenyan government doing to get this situation under control?
Nowadays most of the ivory that has been going through Mombasa is not Kenyan—it's Tanzanian; it's from Central Africa. The first objective I gave myself was to stop the killing of Kenyan elephants, and we have done that. Stopping the smuggling is beyond the scope of the KWS. It remains a work in progress. The Port Authority in Mombasa recently cleaned out their staff from top to bottom. They've got a completely new customs unit, a new unit for handling containers, a new unit on the dock. At the moment, it's looking good.

A proposed highway would cut across the Serengeti Plain in neighboring Tanzania. Some environmentalists say this would end the largest wildlife migration on earth. Yet you are in favor of it.
The Serengeti is a fantastic ecosystem and should be preserved at all costs, but we need to address the problem realistically. The Serengeti is also surrounded by growing communities. The towns this road is intended to serve are projected to grow into a three-million-plus metropolis. Tanzania is building a second port within the next decade. They are clearly looking—as we in Kenya are—at trade with Central Africa. Hence, the need for a road. So yes, I support a transport corridor across the Serengeti. But 40 kilometers of the highway should be elevated 30 meters above the ground to enable wildlife to move back and forth.

What is your greatest worry?
Climate change. It's just terrifying. I'm really concerned that through population growth and unplanned development around the parks, we've created “islands” for the wildlife. And if you look at the paleontological record, where there are islands and there has been climate change the island species become extinct long before they do on the mainland because there is nowhere to go. If there is a drought and the waterholes dry up in the park, there is nowhere to go. I'm not sure what we are going to do about lack of water and diminished rainfall in the future.

Brad Pitt will be playing you in a movie about your life. How do you feel about that?
I always wanted there to be a film where the plight of elephants and rhinos could be exposed. If Brad Pitt is seen fighting to save these animals, tens of millions of people, including in China, will believe him.

So Brad Pitt playing Richard Leakey could be a more powerful voice than Richard Leakey.
A thousand times more powerful!