Jane Goodall: A message of hope
Legendary ethologist and UN Messenger of Peace Dr Jane Goodall talks to Chris Seekings about her rise to stardom, the fragile state of the environment, politics and the indomitable human spirit
Dr Jane Goodall is admired across the world for her groundbreaking research into chimpanzees and tireless pursuit of environmental protection. Her scientific discoveries helped change the way we relate to animals, inspiring millions to protect the natural world. Her story has been told countless times in books and documentaries, but is well worth telling again.
In March 1957, an enthusiastic 23-year-old Dr Goodall travelled by ship for three weeks from England to visit a friend in Kenya. It was the fulfilment of a childhood ambition for Dr Goodall, who had been fascinated by Africa after reading The Story of Doctor Dolittle, The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes. “When I went to the Serengeti it was magic, everything I dreamed Africa would be,” she says gleefully. “Meeting a rhino, meeting a lion, walking out on the plains – it was really exciting.”
She found work as a secretary to paleontologist Dr Louis Leakey, who was so impressed by her knowledge of natural history that he asked her to become his chimpanzee researcher. It wasn’t long before she would turn our understanding of chimpanzees on its head and be catapulted to international stardom. “It was what I had wanted to do since I was 10, and I had read everything I could about Africa, so I wasn’t daunted at all.”
She began her observations in 1960 in what is now the Gombe National Park, with no scientific background or training. “My big worry was how I was going to find the chimps,” she says. “I remember going along on a boat and looking up at these slopes and forests, thinking ‘How on earth am I going to find them in all this?’”
She immersed herself in chimpanzee society, and took the unscientific approach of assigning names to some of the primates, including Frodo, Fifi and David Greybeard, named after his white facial hair.
“A lot of politicians think, ‘I’m not going to risk losing my position to make things better in 100 years”
One day, when looking up through the canopy with her binoculars, she observed David Greybeard eating meat, something never recorded before. Another day, she saw him use a piece of grass to pull termites out of the ground, then stripping leaves from a twig to use as a tool to forage for more. “Nobody had expected chimpanzees to eat meat, so it was very exciting,” she says. “I wasn’t surprised to see them using tools, but I knew scientists didn’t think it was possible. They even said they must have learnt it from humans – that’s how snooty they were.”
She already had more notable scientific discoveries under her belt than most amass over a career, with Dr Leaky declaring: “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.”
Dr Goodall went on to observe many remarkable personality traits, along with some distressing ones – she was shocked to see chimpanzees killing and eating each other. “The warfare and cannibalism was horrible,” she says. “It unfortunately made them more like us than I had thought.”
She was also on the receiving end of animal cruelty. One chimpanzee, whose mother was a top-ranking female, could be particularly nasty. “Frodo once dragged me and stamped on me, then came back and did it again. He did it to quite a few people, but me more than anyone else.”
She became a star when National Geographic broadcast footage of her work to millions of homes worldwide, and after attending Cambridge University, she became only the eighth person to obtain a PhD without a BA or BSc – a feat even more impressive considering the dominance of men in science.
Above: Dr Goodall with a captive chimpanzee - her organisation does not endorse the handling of wild chimpanzees
Conservation and compassion
Dr Goodall’s discoveries opened up debates around our relationships with animals that endure to this day. We speak as coronavrius sweeps the world, which was thought to have originated in a Wuhan wet market. “One good thing coming out of coronavirus is the Chinese government finally banning the trade of wild animals,” she says. “I sent a video that is being played all over China, saying how sorry I am for the Chinese people, and how we’ve learnt that animals have feelings like us, and it would be wonderful in the future when this is all over if people and animals can live in harmony.”
Examining our relationships with animals also leads to questions about culling: “I don’t think we should cull if cull equals kill,” she says. “On the other hand, if we have messed up the environment so much that a species overpopulates, do you let them overgraze and die of starvation?”
She admits that we might not have the answers yet. “You could perhaps find a way of making them infertile. The thing that makes us different from animals is our intellect and we should, if we really tried, be able to do something other than killing.”
The Jane Goodall Institute is still involved in conservation, but the interconnectedness of deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change has broadened her mission. After learning at a conference in 1986 how humans were destroying habitats, she started a schedule that now sees her travel around 300 days a year.
"I didn’t know what to do, but from that moment on I stopped being in the field and started this crazy travelling.”
She discovered that many people living in African forests were also suffering. Crippling poverty, a lack of good health and education facilities, land degradation and ethnic violence were compounding problems. “Too many people were there for the land to support,” she says. “We gave them tools to conserve their forest, helping them understand it was for their own future.”
Climate change was high on the agenda at the World Economic Forum’s summit in Davos this year, and Dr Goodall was present for the deliberations. She tells me that, while politicians understand the urgency of the situation, few see an immediate threat. “A lot of them think, ‘I’m not going to risk losing my position to make things better in 100 years’.”
While in Davos, she attracted controversy with comments on human population growth, with some accusing her of oversimplifying the issue. Her response is simple: “Unlimited economic development on a planet of finite resources where the human population is growing means more meat, which means feeding them billions of animals, and therefore more methane emissions,” she says. “We’re using natural resources faster than we can replenish them. You can’t just ignore it.”
“It’s peculiar that the most intellectual species is destroying its only home”
Dr Goodall was ahead of the curve on unsustainable population growth, and first started discussing it in the 70s. “No other organisation would talk about it, as it’s too politically sensitive.” She believes education is key, explaining how her institute provides scholarships for girls and family planning information in Africa. Around Gombe, it was traditional for women to have eight to 10 children. “Today, many women are saying three to four. We would like it to go down to two, but three to four is much better than eight to 10.”
She is a patron of Population Matters, and coined the phrase “voluntary population optimisation”, saying that forced population control is an unhelpful answer. She has also been criticised for targeting poorer countries. “But I say that rich families, certainly in the US, have five to six children too, and each one uses about the same resources as 10 poor African children, but people just grab onto anything they can to be aggressive and don’t listen to what I am actually saying.”
Dr Goodall believes Western lifestyles aren’t sustainable, and bemoans the “hundreds of stupid little plastic bottles” in hotel rooms and other wastefulness she has come across during her travels around the world. However, she has noticed attitudes changing.
“You can’t ignore the fact that the ice is melting, or that storms, floods, droughts and fires are worse.”
In 1991, Dr Goodall established Roots & Shoots, a hands-on humanitarian and environmental programme for young people of all ages that is now active in more than 65 countries. “They’re out there, rolling up their sleeves, taking action. They’re planting trees, working on plastic reduction, recycling and reusing, and urging their parents to change.”
Is her globetrotting unsustainable? “I don’t have a private jet, and Roots & Shoots will help plant five million trees this year,” she explains. “I said to Greta Thunberg: “‘You know I fly?’ She said, ‘Well, you have to’. I wouldn’t do it if the message wasn’t resonating.”
Four reasons to hope
Population growth, corruption, unsustainable lifestyles and poverty are our four biggest challenges, according to Dr Goodall. She cites young people as one reason for hope. “Everywhere I go, there are young people wanting to tell Dr Jane what they’ve been doing to make the world a better place. There is so much enthusiasm, determination, imagination and success in what they do.”
Another reason for optimism is “our amazing intellect”. “It’s peculiar that the most intellectual species is destroying its only home,” she says. “Nevertheless, the human brain is coming up with all sorts of innovations and we need governments to subsidise them rather than their buddies in the fossil fuel industry.”
The resilience of nature is also grounds for optimism, with Dr Goodall explaining how trees have returned to bare hills in Gombe thanks to her institute’s Tacare programme. “Areas which we have completely destroyed can be given back to nature. Nature will take over, given a chance, and animals on the brink of extinction can be rescued, and have been.”
Finally, she says it is the “indomitable human spirit” that gives her reason for hope, praising the “people who tackle what seems impossible, won’t give up, and so often succeed”.
This year is the 60th anniversary of her work at the Gombe National Park and, despite turning 86, she has no plans to slow down.
“I can’t retire because there is so much to be done – we’re in such dark times, and if you don’t have hope you don’t do anything,” she explains. “This is why I do this crazy schedule. After every lecture, at least one person will say: ‘I had given up, but I promise now I will do my bit’, so how could I retire?”
She admits it’s difficult to remain hopeful, but in a message for IEMA members, says: “There are now millions of people acting and thinking differently. I hope people working in sustainability look at the big picture, and all our efforts together help them see what a difference they’re making.”
Picture Credit | Stuart Clarke| Getty Images
Chris Seekings is a reporter for TRANSFORM