April 28, 2013

Remembering Francis Bossuyt

The evening before his 31st birthday, biologist Francis Bossuyt went for his daily swim in the lake at Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu Park, Peru, and was never seen again. After weeks of fruitless searching by scientist colleagues, park guards, the Peruvian authorities and his Belgian family, he was presumed to be the victim of some mishap on the lake. This loss represented a double tragedy for his family, since his own father had died four years earlier in the mysterious explosion of a TWA flight off Long Island in July of 1996, which had interrupted Francis's very first month of fieldwork at Cocha Cashu. 

Francis with a titi monkey
(Photo source: Myriam Bossuyt)

Just a few days before Francis disappeared on April 27, 2000, I received a letter from him that was written from Cocha Cashu before Christmas and postmarked from Miami on April 13. 

In the letter, Francis describes his preliminary observations about the use of apparent medicinal plants by a group of dusky titi monkeys he was studying for a doctoral thesis at U.C. Davis. He was interested in comparing this information with my own work on plants used by the nearby Matsigenka indigenous people. We had begun to correspond about beginning a comparative study.

Today, on what would have been Francis's 44th birthday and the 13th anniversary of his disappearance, I reproduce this letter with its novel observations about the use of aromatic plant species by dusky titi monkeys:

In the days and weeks following his disappearance, I was reminded of Matsigenka stories about special individuals -- shamans, herbalists, orphaned children -- who use their knowledge of esoteric plants to join the immortal beings residing in the Milky Way: they vanish without leaving a physical trace in the world below.

As his mother Myriam wrote in a memorial posting last January, celebrating renovations at Cocha Cashu being carried out by the San Diego Zoo, "For us, [Cocha Cashu] will always be a special place where Francis’s spirit roams, and we hope it will remain a sanctuary for the many creatures who live and work there, who love and die there."