Thursday, January 25, 2024

Chimp&See Tribute to Christophe Boesch

PanAf founder and co-director Christophe Boesch passed away suddenly on Sunday January 14th 2024

The PanAf was Christophe's legacy project, his great vision and he greatly supported our work on Chimp&See. He was a very great man and the world is a lot worse now that he is gone.

We even caught him on our PanAf/Chimp&See camera traps a few times at various sites:

Today at the MPI-EVA,I gave one of the speeches at his memorial tribute which mainly focused on his academic work. My friend and colleague Dr. Tobias Deschner, then focused on all the achievements of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation.

My text is posted below, but I would like to encourage you to follow the WCF on youtubelinkedinfacebook, instagram and on their website. It is my favourite NGO and they do amazing grass roots, evidence-based conservation work, and supporting them is the best way to honour Christophe's memory.

Dr. Inza Kone's tribute post to Christophe also showcases beautifully the impact this amazing man had in the conservation world and beyond.

(extracted from the MPI-EVA Tribute to Christoph Boesch. January 25th 2024. M. Arandjelovic)

I came to this institute with a passion for wildlife conservation, genetics and an obsession with gorillas. But over the last 20 years Christophe Boesch managed to convince me that chimps were pretty cool too.

Christophe was a pioneer. I can list a ton of firsts. With his wife Hedwige, they established the Tai Chimpanzee Project in 1979 and were the first to habituate chimpanzees without provisioning. This meant they just followed shadows in the forest, hoping for years that one day the chimps would just stop running away. Legend has it that this was because the chimps wouldn’t eat the bananas Christophe tried to give them. But be it intentional or reactive, Christophe and Hedwige kept at it for 5 years, trusting a process no one had tried before, a mix of confidence and hope, that it would work, with enough persistence.

Christophe’s Tai Chimpanzee Project revealed western chimps to be more gregarious than those that had been documented in the east and taught us about chimpanzee adoption by males, of unrelated orphan infants. He was the first to document cooperative hunting in chimpanzees. He is one of the founding fathers of animal culture and it's basis in social learning. He debated tirelessly across fields, advocating for species-specific, culturally-relevant and ecologically-appropriate testing in both human and primate cognition studies. Christophe is also the founding father of primate archaeology, bringing archaeologists to Tai to excavate a 4000 year old chimpanzee stone tool use site in 2001.

In 2005 Christophe started the Loango Ape Project in Central Africa, and as was the trend at several of the newer chimp research sites, the more we looked, the more chimpanzee behavioural diversity was found.

This inspired Christophe’s legacy project the Pan African Programme: The Cultured Chimpanzee which he started with Hjalmar Kuehl in 2010. The ambitious idea of creating short-term research sites, for as many chimpanzee groups as possible across their range, to better understand the behavioural repertoire of chimps and the evolutionary drivers of that diversity. Over 10 years, non-invasive data was collected from 18 countries and over 50 chimpanzee sites, and has already led to exciting revelations on the evolution of behavioural diversity. At the time, the PanAf project was thought of as unfeasible and over reaching, but thanks to Christophe’s vision and leadership, its already being replicated in other taxa.

Christophe often said he felt indebted to the chimps. and that the only way he felt he could repay that debt, was to ensure their protection.

He not only established the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in 2000, but he also made sure his NGO would follow evidence-based ground-truthed practices. He supervised countless students whose research focus was improving conservation and biodiversity assessments, so that the basis of WCF recommendations and interventions would be to the highest scientific standards. This led to the birth of the A.P.E.S. database and eventually the A.P.E.S. wiki where all ape survey data is centralized and widely accessible.

I don’t want to just list his accomplishments though, I want you to know this man supported me and cheerleaded me, as he did for many others, and many other women in particular. He also understood the importance of nurturing chimpanzee range country scientists and did so enthusiastically. He supported them academically, but also encouraged them to take leadership roles in their home countries. So many students and researchers came through these MPI hallways from Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, Rwanda, Gabon and more. This includes Christophe’s PhD student Dr. Simone Ban, the first woman to obtain her doctorate from the largest university in cote d'Ivoire in 2017.

Christophe valued a lot of things about people that don’t usually get valued in academia. He valued different view points, he liked to be challenged and to talk through difficult topics and he made us do the same, he brought us to the table. He didn’t mind if people felt passionately, feelings and topics were not scary or taboo, discussion was the way towards resolution.

When I joined the Max Planck, many moons ago, I had no field experience, I was a lab person and at that time, the two did not mix. But Christophe let me go to Tai anyway so that I could see the forest and the chimps. Specifically because he thought it would make me a better scientist. And it was indeed life changing. When he joined me in the forest a month after I had been there he was able to show me so much more than I had been seeing. I saw the forest through his eyes, i hadn’t been seeing the things I was looking at. His knowledge and passion were absolutely magical, and I am so very sad that I won’t get to be with that again.

During that trip, in a time before GPSs, he kept trying to teach me how to use my map and compass and find the trails at Tai. No matter how many times I screwed it up though, he was so encouraging when I succeeded. As if I had done it on the first try. I was also not the most agile primate ever to enter the Tai forest either, and there were a lot of snickers from the field assistants every time I tripped and fell to my face AGAIN on the forest floor . And I remember at some point in the afternoon, Christophe casually said to one of the assistants, but loud enough so that I could hear, “even though she falls a lot, she gets up really well”. And At the time, I mainly thought this was a kindness. a way to motivate me forward, to make sure I was still going to collect my data.

But now when I think about it, I think it was actually an overarching metaphor for how Christophe approached things and inspired people. Do your best, you may fail, try again, try again, don’t get discouraged, keep fighting, don't let the snickers of others keep you down, keep trying to figure it out. You will get there.

Christophe should still be here. He should be still fighting for the chimps. We need him, the chimps need him, the forests need him and I am absolutely ruined that he is gone. I only take solace in knowing how many people he inspired and that will carry on his amazing legacy.

Rest in Power Dear Christophe and thank you SO much for everything. Merci.

This video was made by/for the 2023 Indianapolis Prize for with Christophe was a finalist and showcases what an incredible force of nature he was.