Cape Town - Blissfully unaware of her family’s frantic efforts to find her, the little girl stays hidden in the hen house for hours as she waits patiently to discover where eggs come from.
Luckily for her and for the scientific world of behavioural ecology, her mother doesn’t scold her when she eventually emerges; she sits the five-year-old down in their Bournemouth, England, home and listens patiently to her excited story.
Fast-forward two decades or so to July 1960 and the now 26-year-old Jane Goodall is still sitting watching animals, although this time she’s armed with binoculars and a notebook. And instead of domestic “chookies”, her subjects are wild chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania.
Goodall’s revelatory observations here include the discoveries – new to science – that not only do these chimpanzees eat meat regularly, they also fashion and use tools: flexible sticks stripped of their foliage that the chimps manipulate to fish tasty termites out of their nests. Until that point in history, tool-making was considered the defining trait that separated Homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Goodall, who’d been too poor to attend university in the UK and who’d worked as a waitress to save enough money for her passage to Africa, now had the doors of the scientific world opening to her – although entrance was still strictly on their terms, she told a media briefing during her recent visit to Cape Town, where she delivered the first UCT Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture of this year with a talk, “The Life and Times of Dr Jane Goodall – in celebration of her 80th year”.
Goodall’s Gombe work was so significant that she was able to return to the UK and enrol for a PhD degree at prestigious Cambridge University, despite not having done an undergraduate degree. But she was considered “something of a rebel”, she recalled. “Because when I got to Cambridge and I was talking about the chimpanzees I’d got to know so well – my favourite David Greybeard and Flo and Goliath and Fifi – I was told that that wasn’t scientific, they should all have numbers. And I was told I couldn’t talk about their vivid personalities, I couldn’t talk about the fact that they had minds capable of solving problems, and I especially couldn’t talk about them having emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, despair and so on.”
But fortunately, as a child she’d had a wonderful teacher.
“And that teacher made me understand that the professors, for all their erudite knowledge, were completely wrong when they told me these things. And that teacher was my dog, Rusty.
“You actually can’t share your life in a meaningful way with a dog, a cat, a rabbit or a horse – I don’t care what it is – and not know those things aren’t true. And I had a fantastic professor, who helped me to write things in such a way that I couldn’t be destroyed by my scientific colleagues.”
Armed with her PhD and full scientific credibility, Goodall returned to Gombe and her passion for studying chimps, and built up a research station – so successfully that there are now 28 branches of the Jane Goodall Institute around the world (including one in Johannesburg).
“It was what I’d dreamed of as a child,” she said.
So why did she decide to walk away from that life of scientific security for the much tougher task of full-time activism? It was because of her experience at a 1986 conference that, for the first time, had brought together all the different people who were studying chimpanzees across Africa, she explained.
“And we had a session on conservation that was utterly shocking. Because everywhere forests were disappearing, chimpanzee numbers were decreasing. It was the beginning of the bushmeat trade and of commercial hunting of wild animals for food; chimps were being caught in snares and dying or losing hands or feet.”
There was also a session at the conference on conditions in some captive chimp situations.
“And I can never forget seeing that secretly filmed footage of our closest living relatives in five-foot by five-foot cages in medical research labs.
“So I went into that conference as a scientist, planning how I would live the rest of my life, doing some teaching at Stanford in America, building up the research station, having time to analyse the data and writing books. But I left the conference as an activist and I haven’t been more than three weeks successively in any one place since then.”
Now just two months shy of her 80th birthday, Goodall still spends 300 days each year travelling the world, promoting her conservation message. But it’s not only a message about chimps, however close they still are to her heart. Travelling around Africa and learning more and more about the plight of the dwindling forests and of the chimps and the other animals, she’s aso found herself being educated about the plight of the African people.
And 1991 was a formative year for her. She had the opportunity to fly over what had become Gombe national park and its surrounding area – and was appalled by what she saw.
“Although I knew there’d been some deforestation outside the park, what I wasn’t prepared for was to look down on completely bare hills. The only trees were in the really steep valleys or ravines where people couldn’t even try to cultivate. And it was very clear at that moment that there was no way we could even try to save the chimps while the people were living in these dire situations.”
So three years later Goodall and her colleagues launched the TaCARE initiative – it’s pronounced “take care” and is an acronym for the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education programme – that has been “hugely successful”, she said.
“It’s a very holistic way of improving the lives of the people and of suggesting alternative livelihoods. And it wasn’t a group of white people going into an African village and saying ‘Hey, we’re really sorry for you and these are the things we’re going to do to make your lives better’, which had been the unfortunate way that so much well-intentioned aid has been parcelled out. It was a Tanzanian team that went into the villages and listened, and asked the people what they felt would make their lives better.”
The programme took time to become established. “Because people tend not to trust foreigners coming in. But after a while they realised that we were good people and we were there to stay. And so from slightly resenting a bunch of white people running around messing about with monkeys, they became our partners.”
Using sophisticated technology such as GPS and satellite imagery mapping, the programme helped the villages around Gombe to produce a land-use plan that involved very high-resolution maps.
“They’ve put aside land all the way around Gombe to return it to forest, so we now have a buffer around this tiny national park. And as a result of that, the chimps today have three times more forest than they had 10 years ago and it’s regenerating quite fast, although of course nothing like it was in 1960.”
Chimpanzees are believed to have numbered around 1 million at the turn of the 20th century, while today there are probably fewer than 200 000 remaining in the wild.
Goodall’s other key initiative is her Roots & Shoots organisation for young people.
“I was meeting so many young people who seemed to have not much hope for the future. And I talked to them, and they told me they felt like that because, you know, we’d compromised their future and there was nothing they could do about it. And of course we have.
“When I look at what we’ve done to this planet since I was the age of my youngest grandchild, who is just 13, I feel so ashamed. And so this led to the start of Roots & Shoots for young people.”
The environmental and humanitarian youth programme started with 12 high school students in Tanzania. Now involving young people from pre-school to university level, it has a presence in 134 countries, including Iran, Abu Dhabi, Latin America and mainland China.
“Each group chooses three projects to make the world better – to help people, help animals, help the environment. And running through it is the theme ‘Let’s learn to live in peace and harmony’. Yes, with each other, because we have so far to go, but also with the natural world because we depend on this natural world for our future. So basically that is what keeps me rushing around the world for 300 days a year. And the main message of Roots & Shoots, which is the main message for everyone, is that every single one of us makes a difference, every single day. And we have a choice as to what kind of difference we’re going to make.” - Sunday Argus