Jonathan Leakey Introduction to video link, FFON

By John and Margaret Cooper.

This website is dedicated to the memory of Maxwell Knight (1900-1968), naturalist, conservationist, broadcaster and writer and spymaster. The acronym FFON alludes to his unpublished book manuscript The Frightened Face of Nature.

Maxwell Knight had a life-long fascination with reptiles, especially snakes. He studied them in the wild and he kept them in captivity. He was a founding member of the British Herpetological Society (BHS).

Figure. Maxwell Knight’s Keeping Reptiles and Fish, published in 1952.

One of his first books, prepared during the difficult days after the 2ndst World War, was Keeping Reptiles and Fish (Figure), published in 1952 and sold for the princely sum of six shillings! (A lot of money in those days). This told young naturalists what they might see in local meadows, ponds and streams and how some of the animals found there might be brought into captivity, at least for a while, for observation and study.

Maxwell Knight’s particular penchant for snakes is apparent when reading Chapter 9 (“Snakes”) of Keeping Reptiles and Fish. His writing style remains precise and measured – rather like the clipped tone of radio broadcasts in those more formal days – but in his description of snakes he begins to indulge in terms like “wonderful”, “amazing” and “handsome”. He clearly liked and cared for these creatures and throughout his life he went to pains to dispel myths and fears about serpents and to challenge prevailing views that they should be despised.

Another man with a love of snakes and a lifelong interest in reptiles is a friend of ours (John and Margaret Cooper) – Jonathan Leakey. We have known Jonathan for fifty years and first visited him at his home when we were living in Kenya. In early 1970 Jonathan asked John (Cooper) if he could help with some veterinary advice for his snakes that were being used to supply East African snake venoms for medical purposes. This led to a long period of collaboration (Figure) and resulted in publications that helped further knowledge and understanding of reptile diseases, health and welfare.

Figure. Veterinary work with snakes at Jonathan Leakey’s snake farm, Baringo, Kenya, in the early 1970s. From left: Jonathan Leakey, John Cooper (examining a viper, held by snake farm staff),
Peter Nares (then Curator, Nairobi Snake Park).

Jonathan was the eldest son of the famous palaeoanthropologists Dr Louis (L S B) Leakey and Mrs Mary Leakey and he shared a home in Nairobi with many varied and interesting animals, as well as his two brothers Richard and Philip. He sought and studied local wildlife and in 1958 his frog, Vesta, participated in the Elsburg Frog Olympics held near Johannesburg, South Africa. The distance jumped by Vesta was 15feet 1 1/2inches (nearly five metres)!

After leaving school, Jonathan often accompanied his parents when they were digging at archaeological sites in East Africa and on 4th November 1960 (his 20th birthday!) he discovered some very significant fossils at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. These bones, officially termed OH 7 but nicknamed “Johnny’s Child”, are now categorised as those of the type specimen of Homo habilis

Jonathan did not stay long in the field with his parents. As he said in one interview “There was enough family involvement in anthropology. I had always liked snakes, so I decided to see if I could do something with them”. He established the Nairobi Snake Park and served as its first curator. He then went his own way, culminating in his setting up his own snake farm at Baringo in Kenya, where he still resides today.

On March 11th 2020 a seminar on “Reptiles and Snakebite” was held at the Kenya Snakebite Research and Intervention Centre (KSRIC) near Nairobi. It is reported in a piece entitled “Charming Snakes” by our friend and colleague Dr Valerie Jeffries, at: https://thefrightenedfaceofnature.com/2020/03/25/charming-snakes-by-dr-valerie-jeffries/

Before the formal presentations at the seminar, Margaret Cooper announced that we had just returned from Baringo, where we (the Coopers) met our old friend Jonathan Leakey, who was now in his 80th year. We interviewed Jonathan and these paragraphs serve as an introduction to the video in which he sends good wishes to the seminar and recounts some of his exciting life working with snakes.

JEC/MEC 4th April 2020