The son of a Truro innkeeper, Lander's explorations began as an assistant to the Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton on an expedition to western Africa in 1825. Clapperton died in April 1827 near Sokoto, present-day Nigeria, leaving Lander as the only surviving European member of the expedition. He proceeded southeast before returning to Britain in July 1828.
Lander returned to western Africa in 1830, accompanied by his brother John. They landed at Badagri on March 22, 1830 and followed the lower Niger River from Bussa to the sea. After exploring about 160 kilometres of the Niger River upstream, they returned to explore the Benue River and Niger Delta. They travelled back to Britain in 1831.
In 1832, Lander returned to Africa as leader of an expedition organized by Macgregor Laird and other Liverpudlian merchants, with the intention of founding a trading settlement at the junction of the Niger and Benue rivers. However, the expedition encountered difficulties, many personnel died from fever and it failed to reach Bussa. While journeying upstream in a canoe, Lander was attacked by African tribesmen and wounded by a musket ball in his thigh. He managed to return to the coast, but died there from his injuries.
In Truro, a monument to his memory by Cornish sculptor Neville Northey Burnard stands at the top of Lemon Street and one of the local secondary schools is named in his honour. In 1832 he became the first winner of the Royal Geographical Society Founder's Medal, "for important services in determining the course and termination of the Niger".
To mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Lander and celebrate the Lander brothers’ remarkable achievements an 'Expedition of Goodwill' was sent in November 2004 to retrace their historic river journey.
Following the positive relationship developed with the Emir of Bussa during the recce, Starting at New Bussa in the north of Nigeria, the team traversed nearly 800km of the river using canoes and local boats, to terminate at Asaba in the south of the country.