Dr. Jeheskel (Hezy) Shoshani was tragically killed May 20, 2008 from massive trauma sustained during a terrorist attack on a public minibus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was a vibrant 65 at the time of his death. To those who knew his gentle spirit, dedication to the preservation of wildlife, and depth of his respect and compassion for other peoples and interest in their cultures, it is unfathomable and incomprehensible that he should be taken from the community of those who search for knowledge, by such mindless, unnecessary violence. Hezy had been teaching biology at Addis Ababa University for a year and a half, and was working to establish a conservation rescue project to protect the elephants of Kafta-Shiraro National Park in northern Ethiopia. He had earlier held a similar position at the University of Asmara, Eritrea, since 1998, and had worked to document wildlife and encourage its conservation in that country, risking his life to elephant charges in the process. Prior to that, he lectured in biology at Wayne State University for nearly 25 years. Wherever he taught, he was a much beloved, enthusiastic and highly motivational mentor to scores of students. Though he was nominally an Israeli, and his home was in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, it was clear from the scope of his activities and outpouring of heartfelt sympathy from colleagues near and far that he was really a citizen of the world, and that his enthusiasm and effervescence could not be constrained by institutional affiliations or national borders.
Hezy’s great passion was understanding and protecting elephants, and his contributions to science include work on proboscidean anatomy, ecology, biogeography, evolution, systematics, genetics and conservation. Under the direction of Morris Goodman, Hezy completed his doctorate in 1986 at Wayne State University in Detroit, based on an investigation of the phylogenetic relationships of elephants and other paenungulates using a novel approach that utilized both molecular and morphological data. Influenced strongly by his advisor, his other great mentor Malcolm McKenna, and his colleague Pascal Tassy, the use of cladistic methods and incorporation of molecular evidence, including ancient DNA, became continuing central themes of his systematic work, which comprises the main corpus of his approximately 200 scientific articles and books. There can be no doubt that, along with Pascal Tassy, Hezy pioneered efforts to update the old Osbornian view of proboscidean relationships and taxonomy, in the process creating fertile research opportunities for future generations of students. A survey of his publications demonstrates the breadth of his expertise and interests, touching on subjects as diverse as mastodon hyoids, elephant trunks, ancient gomphotheres, fossil DNA sequencing of mastodons and differentiation of African savanna and forest elephants. In addition, he edited an extremely informative popular book on elephants (“Elephants,” 1992, Simon and Schuster), and, with Pascal Tassy, edited a more scholarly volume that remains the new standard on proboscideans, “The Proboscidea, Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives” (1996, Oxford University Press). Ever the teacher, he spent enormous energy organizing symposia on proboscideans, including one in 1996 at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in New York, and another in 2001 at the 8th International Theriological Congress in Sun City, South Africa. Attendees of that congress will likely fondly remember Hezy commandeering the game drive lecture during the tour of Pilansberg Park to provide more accurate details about the animals, and his impassioned closing to the proboscidean symposium, when he emotionally told us that “a world without elephants is not worth living in.” Those words were a living credo for Hezy: he worked hard to lobby for a continued CITES ban on the sale of elephant ivory, and tirelessly dedicated himself to identify solutions for ensuring the survival of endangered elephant populations.
His jolly presence at meetings, symposia, museums and field sites – he was bound to materialize anywhere – as well as his colorful e-mails of field observations, which often started with the phrase “much water has flowed in the Jordan River since I last made contact . . .” and usually ended with the encouraging admonition to “hold your trunk up high!” will be greatly missed, but, in the words of Ian Redmond, we will all carry fond memories of his “infectious laugh, thirst for knowledge and love of life.” He was a unique individual and irreplaceable, a friend and colleague to many, and will be well remembered.
Hezy is survived by his dear wife, Sandra Lee Shoshani, who was an important partner in his research and efforts to disseminate knowledge about elephant evolution, ecology and conservation, particularly in the establishment of the Elephant Research Foundation and its publication, “Elephant.” A memorial service will be held in honor of Hezy at the Cranbrook Institute of Science (Science Museum), 39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 7:00 pm. Undoubtedly, elephants everywhere will raise their trunks to commemorate him that day! For those who cannot make it, the best way to remember Hezy is to help continue his efforts to sustain wildlife, by whatever means possible, with your time, voice, expertise and financial support.
William J. Sanders, PhD
Museum of Paleontology
University of Michigan
Picture courtesy of Olga Potapova.