Yesterday I was part of a capacity audience that gathered at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, to hear celebrated English scientist and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall speak and promote her latest book, Seeds of hope.
Her story is a remarkable one. Growing up in the 1940s, she showed a strong affinity for animals and an enquiring mind. Early on she decided that she wanted to go to Africa to study animals and write about them. But her family did not have much money – she wasn’t able to go to university – and in any case, at that time girls were not encouraged to dream such big dreams.
However, Goodall persisted, and when the opportunity arose to visit a school friend in Kenya she waitressed to raise money to travel there. In Kenya she visited archaeologist and palaeontologist Louis Leakey and so impressed him with her knowledge that he offered her a job as an assistant. With Leakey and others she went on a field trip to the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and her abilities convinced Leakey that she was the person to study wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park, also in Tanzania. She first went to Gombe in 1960 (with her mother as her only companion) and gradually gained the confidence of the chimpanzees so she could observe their behaviour.
There she made a breakthrough discovery that changed the way we think about animals. One day she noticed a chimpanzee sitting beside a termite mound, poking a piece of grass into it. The termites clung to the grass and the chimp then proceeded to eat them. Then she saw another chimp stripping the leaves from a twig in order to do the same thing. She concluded that chimpanzees could not only use tools, but make tools – an attribute previously considered to be the preserve of humans. As Leakey remarked when she reported this to him: ‘Now we will have to redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.’
This work prompted National Geographic coverage of her work and instant celebrity. Leakey encouraged her to go to Cambridge University to study for a PhD – a huge challenge for someone who did not even have an undergraduate degree. There she was affronted by the attitude of scientists who insisted that she should not have named the chimps in her study, but rather given them numbers, and who rejected any suggestion that animals had emotions. This conflicted with her observations, which convinced her that chimpanzees not only had complex social behaviours, but expressed emotions such as fear, rage, happiness and grief. And, as she remarked to the audience, anyone who has shared their life with a pet knows they have personalities and feelings.
Goodall nevertheless enjoyed academic work, gained her PhD and returned to Gombe to continue her fieldwork and setting up the Jane Goodall Institute. She wrote numerous books, including In the shadow of man (1971), which I remember poring over as a child.
But a conference she attended in the 1980s led to a change of direction. The discussions focused on the threat to various species because of the worldwide loss of habitats. As she put it, she went to the conference a scientist and left an activist.
On her return to Gombe she realised that the forest, which had been extensive when she first arrived, was now reduced to a fragment, threatening the viability of chimpanzee populations within it. She also recognised that the people who lived nearby were struggling to scratch a living from the infertile soil. So her first step was to approach them to see how she could help improve their lives. This led to a range of development programmes to establish tree nurseries, improve water supplies, and encourage further education, particularly for women and girls. The social benefits were soon apparent, and one consequence was that the locals agreed to leave the forest margins to regenerate. Many of them became involved in the work of monitoring the chimpanzees.
Goodall went further, supporting the conservation of species worldwide – and she referred to extraordinary efforts in New Zealand to bring species such as the black robin back from the brink of extinction. She has also started a youth programme that now operates in over 130 countries, called Roots and Shoots. Young people are encouraged to adopt three projects in their local communities – one to benefit people, one to benefit animals and one to benefit the environment. Her recognition of the interconnectedness of causes resonated strongly with me and clearly with the rest of the audience, who rose to their feet at the end to give her a prolonged ovation.
A fragile-looking, elegant woman, at the age of 80 Goodall still travels 300 days of the year to promote conservation and animal rights and spread her message of hope. To hear her talk and see her sincerity and respect for all species is truly inspirational.