Jonathan Leakey’s deviation from the family calling into snake farming was understandable enough. His parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, were among the formative figures in paleoanthropology. Their finds in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge dated modern man’s ancestors over a million years earlier than was previously thought, and son Richard redoubled their success at a nearby site. Jonathan, the Leakeys’ first son, scored some exploratory coups of his own, but as he recalls it, “There was enough family involvement in anthropology. I had always liked snakes, so I decided to see if I could do something with them.”
Therein lies the tale. Leakey has run a snake farm on Kenya’s Lake Baringo for the last 15 years, selling his serpents to zoos and collectors and milking their venom for snakebite serum. But an indictment in Philadelphia last month suggested that living with snakes may have rubbed off. The alleged crime: helping his U.S. connection, dealer Henry A. Molt Jr. (a name Dickens would have loved), avoid paying some of his customs duty on 29 snakes by declaring only a third of their actual price. Customs fraud is not an extraditable crime, and it is unlikely that Leakey will ever stand trial.
Reached by phone on the remote island he shares with antelope, baboons, snakes and his pet hippo, Suzie, Leakey professed ignorance of the indictment. “I have no idea what it’s all about,” he said. “I ship snakes all over the world, hundreds of them each year.” Perhaps, he suggests, his only crime is being a Leakey. But even if customs stales his business, Leakey will not personally be much put out. The many poisonous bites he has got over the years have made him allergic to the serum, he says, “so I don’t handle snakes much anymore.”