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World-famous Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey dies aged 77

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By Euronews  with AFP, AP
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Richard Leakey, Kenyan wildlife conservationist, places a rhino horn to be burned at the zoo in Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.
Richard Leakey, Kenyan wildlife conservationist, places a rhino horn to be burned at the zoo in Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.   -   Copyright  Petr David Josek / AP

World-renowned Kenyan conservationist and politician Richard Leakey, who unearthed evidence that helped to prove humankind evolved in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 77, the country's president said.

"I have this afternoon... received with deep sorrow the sad news of the passing away of Dr. Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, Kenya's former Head of Public Service," said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement on Sunday evening.

The cause of death was not announced.

Leakey, the middle son of famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, had no formal archaeological training of his own but led expeditions in the 1970s that made groundbreaking discoveries of early hominid fossils.

His most famous find came in 1984 with the uncovering of an extraordinary, near-complete Homo erectus skeleton during one of his digs in 1984, which was nicknamed "Turkana Boy".

In 1989, Leakey was tapped by then-President Daniel Arap Moi to lead the national Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), where he spearheaded a vigorous campaign to stamp out rampant poaching for elephant ivory.

In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley. He survived but lost both legs.

He also tried his hand at politics, ran civil society institutions, and briefly headed Kenya's civil service.

In 2015, despite ailing health, he returned to the helm of the KWS for a three-year term at the request of Kenyatta.

"We are deeply saddened to learn about the news of the death of our founder," said conservation group WildlifeDirect, which Leakey founded in 2004.

The group's CEO, Paula Kahumbu, said Leakey had "a natural sense of leadership, old-fashioned but straightforward. His memory was super sharp and his ability to hold many ideas in the air at once to find common threads was phenomenal. He will be dearly missed."