Jane Goodall, pioneering chimpanzee expert, has studied man’s closest relative for six decades. So why is she turning her attention to humans?
In the not too distant past, scientists refused to believe humans shared behavioral traits with other species. Despite accepting the work of Darwin a century before, it was thought a sharp line divided us from the animal kingdom. Personality and emotion were the dominions of man.
Then along came Jane Goodall, a young woman without a degree to her name, who turned that notion on its head.
Enrolling at Darwin College, Cambridge in England, 1962, Goodall had returned from Tanzania. Two years earlier she’d entered what would become Gombe Stream National Park with only a notebook and binoculars, and emerged with a bevy of findings. Living among local chimpanzees, she’d made three ground-breaking observations in the first four months: that chimps ate meat, and not only used tools, but made them too.
This information, as well as Goodall’s methodology, was an affront to academics and ethologists at the time. Rather than study at arm’s length, the young Briton had spent months ingratiating herself with the local chimpanzee population; giving them names, and learning to read their emotions.
“When I first began studying the chimpanzees there was nobody to tell me how I do it,” Goodall recalls, six decades later. “In 1960 the world knew nothing about chimpanzees in the wild.”
Nonetheless, she was told she’d conducted the whole study wrong. But Goodall held firm in her beliefs.
The rest of the scientific community has been catching up ever since.
“I went as a scientist. I left as an activist”
Goodall and Gombe are inextricably linked. For almost 60 years, Tanzania’s small forest on the banks of Lake Tanganyika has been home to the longest, most detailed study of a wild animal anywhere in the world.
A life’s work, subsequent generations have never known a time when Goodall wasn’t trudging around Gombe. It’s hard to imagine that the primatologist’s path once wasn’t so certain.
“When I was 10, I dreamed of going to Africa, living with animals and writing books about them,” says Goodall. “Everybody laughed at me because I was just a girl, we didn’t have any money [and] World War Two was raging.”
Told to limit her aspirations by others, Goodall’s mother instead advised her to “work hard, take advantage of opportunity, but above all, never give up.”
Against the odds she made it to Gombe. Twenty six years old and spirited, but with no training or scientific credentials, Goodall made her name by shaping a unique perspective on primates, and in turn changing biological discourse forever.
How we’ve witnessed Gombe’s long journey with Jane has evolved too, beginning with camera film and ending in geo-tagged panoramic shots by Google, instantly shareable the world over.
What has remained constant is the ethologist’s devotion to chimps. Gombe was declared a national park in 1968, and the primatologist founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to continue her pioneering research. But Goodall was unaware that flying under the radar was an impending catastrophe.
Attending a conference in 1986, she describes entering “as a scientist planning to continue an absolutely idyllic life.”
“We had a session on conservation, and it was shocking to see right across Africa, wherever chimps were being studied, forests were disappearing. Chimp numbers were dropping, [it] was the beginning of the bush meat trade; chimpanzees caught in snares, mothers shot to steal babies for pets, for medical research, circuses and so forth.
“We also had a session at that conference on conditions in some captive situations, and seeing secretly filmed footage in medical research labs was just… I couldn’t sleep.
“I went to the conference as a scientist. I left as an activist.”
It takes a village to raise a chimp
The Jane Goodall Institute says more than one million chimpanzees lived in African forests a century ago. Today that number might be as low as 200,000. Gombe, no exception, is on the front line.
“I flew over Gombe in a small plane,” says Goodall, “and that was a major turning point in my life, because the little tiny national park, which had been part of a belt of forest stretching right around the west coast… [was] surrounded by completely bare hills.”
Fourteen villages surround the park, and deforestation was rampant. Communities were cutting down trees for agricultural land, but as a result the biosphere took a knock. Sometimes the river dried up, reported locals. Fewer trees result in a less water vapor being released in tropical forests, a 2012 study found – in essence, tropical deforestation was causing a drop in rainfall.
By 2005, the area around Gombe had been ravaged, as demonstrated by 3D mapping at the time.
In attempting to improve their situation, communities were threatening their own existence, as well as that of Gombe’s primates. But the park’s situation is far from unique – Tanzania sits heavily within a band of land most at risk of climate change in Africa.
“I realized if we don’t help people to have better lives, we can’t even try to save the chimpanzees,” Goodall reflects.
Jane and the Institute now devote a huge portion of their efforts to wildlife conservation, working closely with the park’s surrounding communities to advance human prospects and guard Gombe’s natural treasures. Health, education and clean water came first, and later communities were able to turn their attention to their ecosystem.
The Jane Goodall Institute’s TACARE (“take care”) initiative encourages locals to preserve the forest, establishing tree nurseries in each village, tended by locals. Nursery attendants are provided with thousands of seeds at a time, growing them into saplings which are then distributed across surrounding farms. These species, ideal for firewood, act as a better alternative to the indigenous varieties being cut down before.
“Changing people’s attitudes is not a one-day thing,” says Emmanuel Mtiti, program director of the Jane Goodall Institute-Tanzania, whose work is partly funded by US AID. “They were not aware of the harm they were causing to the environment… [They thought] trees just grow.”
However the initiative has taken effect, driven by Tanzanians on the ground and not “arrogant white people” Goodall so despairs of. TACARE has changed the landscape of this corner of the country, as evidenced by aerial shots of Kigalye village, just south of Gombe, from 2005 and 2014.
The Institute’s collaboration with Google Street View has provided publicity and exposure once unthinkable for Gombe. Now anyone can take a virtual tour around Goodall’s house, every surface piled high with books and papers and zoological knick-knacks.
But their work with Google has come into its own thanks to the industry of local villagers like Kashindi Msafiri. Msafiri, a resident of Kigalye, is one of Gombe’s forest monitors, who treks into the park armed with a tablet and wearing a 360 degree camera attached to a helmet.
“Since I’ve come into the forest, I’ve found evidence of two people who have been cutting trees for firewood,” he says. “When they heard me coming, they ran away, and left their tools.”
An active deterrent, the forest monitors are also able to document the ever-evolving landscape of the park, bringing us closer to the chimpanzees Jane has spent a lifetime among. Comfortable – even playful – in the presence of Msafiri and his colleagues, one of the chimps has been called “Google” in honor of the collaboration.
“We started with 12 villages, but now we have 52 villages,” says Mtiti. “We now cover 1.5 million hectares. Monitoring has been a centerpiece for the success that we needed.”
“It’s a very exciting time in terms of technology,” says Lilian Pintea from the Institute. “It’s about telling a story. We try to reach decision makers not only through their minds through data and statistics, but we have to reach into their hearts, and telling a story and having the right tools to visualize, it’s essential.”
“When Jane went into Gombe, her main tools were an old binocular and a notepad and pen. Now, we can see every tree from space,” he adds.
Connecting people with animals, and in turn the issues surrounding them, has been at the heart of Goodall’s work for the past 56 years. Technology has helped highlight nature’s plight as well as nurture relations between man and primate. It’s also proved, despite a dire climate for conservationists, positive change is not impossible.
“I think one of the most important things for people to understand,” says Goodall, “is don’t feel helpless when you look at all the problems of the world.
“Realize that if you think about the consequences of the small choices you make each day – what you buy, what you eat, where did it come from, how was it made, did it harm the environment, cruelty to animals, child slave labor – [you] make more ethical decisions.
“It’s not just you. It’s more and more people around the world. In the end, it’s hundreds of millions of people making small choices, that are the right choices, that leads us to a new kind of world.”