A world in which humans live in harmony with nature is still possible, says veteran environmental campaigner Jane Goodall.
“She saw my shining eyes and sat down to hear the wonderful story of how a hen laid an egg. A different kind of mother might have crushed those early signs of curiosity and maybe I wouldn’t have gone on to do what I have done.”
Small, poised, still sporting the ponytail pictured in the 1963 National Geographic cover story that introduced this young blonde researcher to the world, British naturalist and reluctant scientist, UN-appointed Messenger of Peace, British dame and obstinate activist, Goodall has lived a life shaped by animals. At two, she received a stuffed chimp named Jubilee; at eight, she read a Doctor Dolittle book and convinced her friends she really could understand the chattering of squirrels; at 10, she bought a second-hand copy of Tarzan and the Apes and fell in love with the title character.
“And what did he do?” she says at a public talk in Christchurch, part of a nationwide tour to launch the New Zealand branch of the Jane Goodall Institute for wildlife research and habitat protection. “He married the wrong Jane.”
At 23, London-born Goodall accepted a friend’s invitation to stay with her family in Kenya, where she met famed palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey. Three years later, Leakey asked to her to undertake research into chimpanzee behaviour in Tanzania. Accompanied by her ever-supportive mother, she set up base in the Gombe Stream Reserve on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.
“No one knew anything about chimps in the wild, nothing. I went there with an open mind to see if I could find a way of being with animals.”
The patience of the little girl in the henhouse paid off. For months, the chimpanzees would run from this “peculiar white ape”. Eventually, however, she was “introduced” to the group by “a very handsome male with a beautiful white beard”. She named him David Greybeard: “It was his acceptance of me that helped me to be introduced to other chimpanzees in the forest.”
From this vantage point, she recorded the social structure of chimpanzees – the familial bonds, the personalities, the aggression and the deep compassion. She broke new ground in witnessing chimps not only using but making tools – stripping the leaves off a grass stem to dig for termites. Until then, scientists believed humans – and only humans – could create implements. As Leakey famously declared in response, “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
Some academics criticised Goodall’s tendency to attribute human behaviours and names to chimpanzees. She was not put off. As she says, she never set out to be a scientist – she only undertook a PhD at Cambridge University at Leakey’s request. Besides, she says now, “how would you ever think of numbering an animal that you knew?”
In 1986, at a conference organised by the Chicago Academy of Sciences, her life changed. She listened to accounts of falling chimpanzee numbers, depleted forests, the beginning of the bush meat trade – the commercial hunting of wild animals for food – and the shooting of mothers so their babies could be sold.
She also saw secretly filmed footage of chimps in an American medical laboratory. “Seeing our closest living relatives in 5ft by 5ft [1.5m x 1.5m] cages – I couldn’t sleep. I went into the conference a scientist, I came out an activist. I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.”
Since then, she hasn’t been more than three weeks in any one place.
She started in Africa. A flight over what is now Gombe Stream National Park showed her that what used to be a “great equatorial forest” had become a tiny island of forest surrounded by bare land. Many of the problems faced by chimpanzees, she realised, stemmed from problems faced by people living close to chimp habitats – poverty, hunger and lack of good education and health facilities.
In 1994, through the Jane Goodall Institute, she formed the Lake Tanganyika Catchment, Reforestation and Education Project, or Tacare. Active in more than 50 villages, the project establishes tree nurseries, restores soil fertility and improves access to clean water. It also sets up microcredit schemes and education scholarships for girls. The Gombe chimps now have three to four times as much forest as they had 10 years ago.
On a global level, she has campaigned against wildlife trafficking, deforestation, climate change, the impact of large-scale monoculture and plastic pollutants in the ocean. She has drawn public attention to the treatment of laboratory animals and the industrial model of factory farming, which, she writes in her book Harvest for Hope,“simply doesn’t find it efficient or profitable to consider animals as sentient beings”.
In New Zealand, she addressed Parliament on dairy farming, genetically modified organisms and invasive species.
“They, too, feel pain; they, too, feel fear; they, too, have a right to their own life. We are going to have to end that life probably, but we should do it with respect, not have children having a sport on how many possums we can kill. That made me sick to the stomach.”
In witnessing the similarities between chimpanzees and humans, she notes one major difference: the explosive development of human intellect.
“So why is this most intellectual species destroying our only home?” she asks. “We have inherited this planet from our parents; now we are stealing it from our children. The time will come when it is too late, but I think we have a window of time now and we have to get as many people to make as many little changes in their lives as possible before this window closes.”
Keeping that window open, she says, are the farmers’ markets, urban farms, animal shelters and sanctuaries and the thousands of environmental projects undertaken by those involved in Roots & Shoots, the youth programme of the Jane Goodall Institute, which is active in 99 countries, including New Zealand.
Sometimes, she says, people feel helpless, so they do nothing, but the consequences of the small choices we make each day – what we buy, what we eat – can all change the world for the better.
“We the public, we the consumers, we the voters – we have to live up to what we say, we have to walk our talk.
“We are all interconnected – people, animals, our environment. When nature suffers, we suffer. And when nature flourishes, we all flourish. I do believe in the possibility of a world where we can live in harmony with nature, but only if all of us does our part to make that world a reality.
“It’s a sad world right now. But I won’t give up – I’m much too obstinate for that.”
This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.