Ever since he was a kid growing up in Belgium Ben was always fascinated by wild animals. His dream was to become “Daktari” (the leading character of a popular TV series in the 1960s under the same name), a wildlife vet living in Kenya with lions, giraffes and elephants. However, as time went by Ben realised he didn’t want to treat animals, his wish was to study them but more importantly, to conserve and protect them. Therefore, he obtained an Ecology degree from the University of Grenoble.
Although Daktari was his childhood’s icon, in real life there were other people and situations which gave Benoît the passion for zoology and wildlife conservation. Ben recalls Prof. Bernard Serra Tosio, at the University of Grenoble, as the most instrumental in his decisions. Benoît continued his education with a Master’s degree working on the population genetics of the Alpine marmot. Afterwards he obtained a grant from the French Ministry of Research to carry out a PhD, also at the University of Grenoble, to continue the genetic work on the marmots. However, one of Ben’s major frustrations was the amount of time spent in the lab and not in the field. So, by his own initiative and almost at the end of his PhD, in 1996 Ben went alone to the Wolong Nature Reserve in China to collect giant panda faeces for a future population genetics project. This trip was inspired by George Schaller; it was because of his book on giant panda that Benoît went to Wolong where he stayed on the place Schaller studied these animals. Ben recalls reaching the base camp as “the moment” when he realised what he really wanted to do was more than just being in the lab, or doing genetic work, or being a veterinarian, he wanted to make a real difference in the field. This trip was also emotionally intense because he was lost for 64 hours in the mountains where pandas lived. Benoît doubted surviving that ordeal but at the same time he became completely convinced of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Benoît’s career path lead him to become the director of DGFC in 2007 at the same time as he finished his post-doc on the Bornean elephant population genetics. Right after the PhD in 1997, he didn’t think twice when the opportunity to work on the rehabilitation of chimpanzees in Congo arose with the NGO HELP Congo. It was through one of this NGO’s meetings that he met Dr Marc Ancrenaz (wildlife veterninarian and current co-director of the NGO HUTAN ) who, at that time, was about to set up a project on orang-utans in the Kinabatangan. In parallel with the volunteer work in Congo, Benoît applied for a post-doc position at the Institute of Zoology of the Zoological Society of London under Prof. Mike Bruford. Of about 100 candidates he was the lucky one to work on the population genetics of orang-utans in Sumatra. At the same time as he was working on the orang-utan project, he started the collaboration on the giant and red pandas’ population genetics using the samples he had collected during his trip to China. In 1999, while doing the post-doc, he went to visit Dr Marc Ancrenaz and Dr Isabelle Lackman who by then were running the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project in Sabah. Following his time with them, Ben wrote a proposal for a new post-doc focusing on the population genetics of the orang-utans in the Kinabatangan, and in 2000 Benoît started his second post-doc under Mike Bruford who was now attached to Cardiff University. It was during this post-doc when he discovered the facilities near the Girang Lake (danau, in Malay) in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. At that time, Ben thought it was a pity to have such a place unused but his focus was on the post-doc he had in his hands and the other projects he was running in parallel. Thanks to his links with HELP Congo, Ben ended up having projects in Central Africa on chimpanzees, black rhinoceros, and on forest elephant genetics. It was the project on forest elephants that sparked his interest in doing a population genetic study of the Bornean elephant. This materialized as a third post-doc, funded by the Darwin Initiative like the previous one, which started in 2005. It was during this period when Ben returned to Danau Girang and found the place falling apart. He decided he wanted to do something there to help with the conservation in the area. He presented the project to the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and to Cardiff University and the rest is history.
Benoît used all his skills in conservation genetics to make his dream come true: working on wildlife in situ and give back concrete conservation measures based on research. He created the opportunities to work in Borneo and through his visits to Sabah he fell in love with the Kinabatangan and its people. As DGFC’s director, Ben is in charge of deciding and developing the research program: looking at how wildlife survives in the Kinabatangan landscape and also being concerned about their future. Ben believes part of DGFC’s uniqueness is having a permanent team in the field, a team that works as a research group but which is not involved only in doing science but also using the results of that science for the conservation of the place. In addition, Ben and most of the staff and students are honorary wildlife wardens and they get involved in monitoring and solving illegal hunting, wildlife trade, illegal logging, conservation awareness, etc. He also encourages working with the oil palm plantations in the area as well as with the communities and the government. Ultimately Benoît wants to make a difference and leave a long-lasting legacy in the area, and to raise the same passion he has for conservation in young students and scientists, Malaysians and foreigners alike.
University of Grenoble, 1998. PhD on the “Reproduction system and intra and inter population genetic variability in the Alpine marmot (Marmota marmota L., Sciurid)”.
Member, IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group
Member, IUCN SSC Crocodile Specialist Group
Member, IUCN SSC Wild Cattle Specialist Group
Member, IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, Great Ape Section
Chief Editor, Conservation Genetics Resources
Associate Editor for BMC Genetics and BMC Zoology
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