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A Conversation With Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall with LaVielle at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of the Congo. (© Jane Goodall Institute/Fernando Turmo)
Jane Goodall with LaVielle at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of the Congo. (© Jane Goodall Institute/Fernando Turmo)

60 years ago, Jane Goodall first began her close observations of Tanzania’s chimpanzees. Equipped with simple binoculars, a notebook and patience, she transformed the way the world understood primates and wildlife. She joins us to look back on her legacy, and discuss the urgent challenges around climate and conservation.


Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute. United Nations Messenger of Peace. Ethologist, conservationist and activist best known for her long-term study of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. (@JaneGoodallInst)

Photo Highlights

Interview Highlights

On how it felt to start her research in Tanzania at age 26

“The first challenge was getting to the Gombe National Park when it was a game reserve. Then, the problem was that on the other side of Lake Tanganyika, just across the water, the Belgian Congo, as it was then, had erupted. There was violence. And so that little town when we arrived there was absolutely full of fleeing refugees, lost all their possessions. So it was about two weeks before I was allowed to proceed along the lake and get to the Gombe National Park. But once I got there, you know, it all seemed rather unreal. It just felt. Am I really here? Can this really, really be me? And climbing up after the tent was erected and looking out over the lake and hearing baboons barking and breathing in the smell of the forest. It really was magic.”

On her lifelong love for animals

“I was born loving animals. All my life, I’ve been outside in the garden waiting for eggs to hatch into baby birds and waiting until they’ve fledged and keeping very quiet so that the parent birds got used to me and would come in and feed the babies and I would watch the squirrels. And occasionally there was a fox. And of course, I had this wonderful dog who taught me so much about animals. So when I got to Gombe, I hadn’t been to university. Nobody else was studying chimps. Virtually nobody was studying anything in the wild. And so I just did the same thing, and gradually — gradually — the chimpanzees got used to me.”

On her discovery that chimpanzees use tools

“I was walking through the forest. It had been raining. And then I suddenly saw a black sheep sitting on a termite mound. And I wasn’t really close, but close enough to see very well through binoculars. And I could see him breaking off grass stems and pushing them down into the termite mound and picking the insects off with his lips. And then sometimes breaking off a leafy twig, which had to be trimmed to make it useful as a tool. And quite honestly, it didn’t surprise me that the chimps could do that. On the other hand, Western science thought that only humans used and made tools. We were defined as ‘Man the Toolmaker.’ And so I knew that this was a very exciting observation.”

On scientists’ tendency to dismiss the idea that animals are emotional beings

“[Louis] Leakey made me go to Cambridge, when I’d been with the chimps for two years and I knew them as individuals, I knew their behavior. I’d seen grooming peacefully, resting, relaxing, playing, laughing, weeping — well, not weeping, but being very, very miserable young ones when they weren’t allowed to suckle anymore. I’d seen anger, resentment. I’d seen a sense of humor. And I was shocked when I got to Cambridge to do a PhD — because Leakey said that there was no time to mess about with an undergraduate degree — and I was very nervous, as you can imagine — and to be told by many of the professors that I’d done everything wrong. I shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names. They should have had numbers; that was scientific. And I couldn’t talk about personality. I couldn’t talk about minds capable of problem-solving. We couldn’t talk about emotions. But you see, when I was a child, I had this wonderful teacher, and that was my dog, Rusty. And he taught me that in this respect, the professors were absolutely wrong. We are not the only beings on the planet with personality, mind and emotion.”

On the challenge of climate change, and how we might overcome it

“I think there are actually three major challenges. One is we must alleviate poverty, because you see an African village and it’s, you know, it’s in this crippling poverty, there’s lack of good health and education. There’s degradation of the land as populations grow. And when I flew over the tiny Gombe National Park, which had been part of a huge forest… By 1990, it was the tiny island of forest and all around were completely bare hills. And that’s when it hit me. If we don’t help people find ways of living without destroying the environment, then we can’t save the chimps. And so that began The Jane Goodall Institute, JGI… the people have now become partners in conservation. So we need to solve poverty. We need to do something about the unsustainable lifestyle of so many millions of people on this planet who have way more than they need, and don’t think about, ‘Do I need this thing I’m buying,’ you know? And then we also have to think about the fact that there are 7.2 billion people on the planet today, and already we’re running out of natural resources faster than nature can replenish them in some places. And in 2050, it’s estimated there will be 9.7 billion, nearly 10 billion people. So these are problems that we must be thinking about if we want to save the planet.”

On how individuals can make a difference in their everyday lives

“What I tell the young people is every single day you live, you make some kind of impact on the planet and you have a choice. Unless you’re very, very poor, which is when you have no choice. But, you know, most of the people listening probably can have a choice. Think about what you buy. How did it harm the environment in its production? Did it lead to cruelty to animals, like the terrible factory farms? Is it cheap because of child slave labor or wages that don’t even enable people to live properly? Make those ethical choices. And when billions of people make those ethical choices, then we start moving towards a different world.”

On the link between environmental destruction and global pandemics

“The people studying these so-called zoonotic diseases, diseases that jumped from an animal to a person that they had predicted a pandemic like this. We keep getting epidemics, we keep getting diseases. We disrespect nature. We destroy forests. We crowd animals together, which can lead to new animal diseases. We push animals into close contact with people and that you can have a virus or a bacteria jumping from one animal to one person. Maybe it binds with a cell in the human body. Maybe that leads to a new disease like COPD 19. And it’s that disrespect of animals. We hunt them, kill them, eat them. We sell them in unhygienic bushmeat markets in Africa, which is where HIV/AIDS began. We traffic them, selling them from different parts of the world to the wildlife meat markets and markets in Asia, where animals from all over the place, different species, are crowded together in horrible, unhygienic conditions. And again, it’s a perfect environment for a virus or a bacteria. Indeed, that’s why COVID-19 is thought to have begun in one of these markets in Wuhan in China, and SARS began in another of these markets in China, and MERS began from domestic camels in the Middle East. And many, many diseases have jumped from animal to person in our absolutely horrendous factory farms.”

On what the biggest obstacles are to action on climate change

“One very serious impediment is leaders in countries who deny climate change altogether. Leaders in countries who, as in the US, roll back environmental protection regulations. They try very hard to do that. You know, there’s me hoping there’ll be a groundswell of people not wanting to go back to days of pollution when perhaps for the first time in a big city they’ve had the privilege of breathing clean air, which should be a human right. But while we have presidents and prime ministers and leaders who are dying to get back to business as usual and open up coal mines and things like that, you know, it’s very, very difficult. But we just must not give up.”

On what brings her joy

“It’s being out in nature, and it doesn’t have to be the forest with chimpanzees, although that’s my very most favorite. But somewhere out in nature, preferably alone with a very close friend and just feeling a part of it… there are some places in the forest when the trees kind of arch overhead and it reminds me of some of those great cathedrals where there’s such a, you know, whether you’re religious or not, the atmosphere — because so many hundreds and thousands of people have been in there and they’ve been praying and they’ve been in contact with what I call a great spiritual power. And that’s the same for me in the forest.”

From The Reading List

CBS News: “Jane Goodall on conservation, climate change and COVID-19: ‘If we carry on with business as usual, we’re going to destroy ourselves’” — “While COVID-19 and protests for racial justice command the world’s collective attention, ecological destruction, species extinction and climate change continue unabated.”

The Guardian: “Jane Goodall: humanity is finished if it fails to adapt after Covid-19” — “Humanity will be ‘finished’ if we fail to drastically change our food systems in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, the prominent naturalist Jane Goodall has warned.”

Creative Boom: “‘What happened when we all stopped’, a beautiful animated poem narrated by Jane Goodall” — “Best-selling author Tom Rivett-Carnac has written a children’s book to share a positive message of hope as we emerge from the lockdown.”

Wall Street Journal: “Jane Goodall Hopes the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Wake People Up” — “Chimpanzees have no shortage of deadly foes. Logging, mining, deforestation, human population growth, the bush-meat trade, the exotic pet trade, medical research, bad zoos: All have helped shrink the global chimp population from more than a million in 1900 to less than 300,000 today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Now, add Covid-19.”

BBC: “Goodall: ‘Great hope’ chimpanzees can avoid extinction” — “Wild chimpanzees are under threat from deforestation and the bushmeat trade and some have made a dire prediction the whole species could disappear.”

New York Times: “Jane Goodall Is Self-Isolating, Too” — “Jane Goodall is in isolation these days along with everyone else, since a fund-raising tour was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Washington Post: “Jane Goodall became a champion for chimpanzees. It started with a 10-year-old’s dream.” — “Jane Goodall was a 10-year-old with a dream.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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