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Primatologist Pair Murdered in South African Home

Judith Masters and Fabien Génin had both recently retired from the University of Fort Hare after celebrated careers researching lemurs and their kin.

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Christie Wilcox

Christie joined The Scientist's team as newsletter editor in 2021, after more than a decade of science writing. She has a PhD in cell and molecular biology, and her debut book Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry, received widespread acclaim.

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Photo of primatologists Judith Masters and Fabien Génin
Judith Masters and Fabien Génin
COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FORT HARE

Judith Masters, a world-renowned primatologist specializing in lemurs and other tooth-combed primates, and Fabien Génin, her partner in life and science, were found dead on October 3, the apparent victims of a robbery. Police found Masters and Génin tied up in one of the rooms of their Hogsback home that morning, The Witness reports. Neither was visibly injured, and the cause of death has yet to be determined. A manhunt for the suspect is ongoing, according to The South African.

The news of their deaths rocked the primatology community. “I am at a loss for words right now with the cruelty of it all. Judith and Fabien were such lovely souls,” Brandi Wren, a primatologist at Purdue University in Indiana who describes the pair as friends of hers, tells The South African.

Masters, who was in her late 60s at the time of her death, was a professor at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in Alice, South Africa, and headed the APIES (African Primate Initiative for Ecology and Speciation) research unit until her retirement last year. Her 50-year-old partner Génin had held a lecturer position at the university and directed field research for APIES before similarly retiring in 2021—though both he and Masters remained active in the research community, according to an obituary by colleague Gavin Whitelaw of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. “The horrific deaths of Judith and her partner have stolen life from all South Africa,” Whitelaw writes.

Masters received undergraduate degrees in biological sciences and zoology before pursuing her doctorate at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, according to her UFH webpage. According to Whitelaw, Masters was known for her vocal opposition to apartheid, including coauthoring a letter in Nature in 1986—a year after she was awarded her PhD—that proposed researchers in South Africa be required to openly denounce discriminatory practices before submitting manuscripts for peer review or otherwise participating in the global scientific community. “In this way, they will be forced to show their true colours, so to speak,” the letter reads.

From 1987 to 1989, Masters worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. Afterward, she returned to South Africa, and in 1997, was appointed associate director of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum—a position she held until 2007, when she joined UFH. Soon after, she founded APIES with help from Génin and international colleagues.

Génin was trained in his home country of France as an ethologist and physiologist and obtained his PhD in 2002, according to News24. He moved to South Africa in 2006 for a position at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. According to a speaker biography posted by the African Primatological Society, he was known for his extensive field experience. His research focused on bioacoustics and soundscape ecology, and with Masters, he contributed to a deeper understanding of primate biology, including the discovery of a new species of bushbaby in 2017.

Just prior to their deaths, Masters and Génin had shifted their focus to biogeography, seeking to understand how vertebrates colonized Madagascar, according to an obituary for Masters in Nature. Their most recent paper—presenting evidence that interspecific interactions facilitated the colonization of the island by lemurs—was published in August in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.

On October 14, the International Primatological Society announced the establishment of the Masters and Génin African Primatology Fund, which will honor the pair’s memory by supporting primatology research by nationals of African countries working in mainland Africa and Madagascar.

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