Many consider Dr. Jane Goodall a lifelong heroine; her pioneering work on the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees have forever changed the way we view our ancestors, the great apes , the animal kingdom and ultimately ourselves. Goodall is not only a world-renowned primatologist, but a conservationist, etiologist, and a UN Messenger of Peace. She is a testament of what science looks like when head combines with heart.
Naturally, when I found out that she was visiting the Southern Coast of Costa Rica, just 20 minutes away from where the nonprofit Carbon Community Trees was hosting a screening of my film, Vanishing of the Bees, I pulled out my press pass to interview her. My host tree activist and lawyer, Jennifer Leigh Smith and I were giddy and all smiles as the elegant English Dame, who just celebrated her 81st birthday on April 3rd, took to the podium with a 19-year-old stuffed monkey in hand. Her discussion was part of the Osa Field Institute’s official launch, a new nonprofit that explores the intersections of environmental, cultural, scientific, and conservation issues.
Dwindling Forests and Chimpanzee Populations
At the turn of the 20th century, the earth was home to about one million chimps; – now there are fewer than 300,000 remaining in the wild. A key factor is destruction of habitat—Africa loses more than 10 million acres of forest every year, twice the world’s deforestation rate, according to UNEP. Meanwhile population growth in Africa is faster than anywhere else, accompanied by poverty and lack of basic needs.
These days, Goodall’s message extends beyond chimpanzee rescue to include deforestation, climate change, and the need to empower individuals to improve the environment for all living things.
Jane shared an array of stories and anecdotes. Here are 15 fascinating things she shared about herself, the chimps, and the other animals.
- At the age of one and a half, a young Jane brings in a handful of earthworms into her bed. Unlike most moms, her’s doesn’t get angry or make a fuss, she simply tells Jane that the worms need the earth to live and that they would die if she kept them in her bed. Together, they put them back in the garden. Her mother proves to be a constant source of support, encouraging Jane to seek her dreams.
- It’s 1938; the Church of England accepts the theory of evolution, Nazi Germany invades Austria, superman makes his first appearance, and Jane aged four wants badly to find out how an egg comes out of a hen. She decides to hide in a small henhouse for hours, waiting patiently to see what happens while her entire family frantically searches for her.
- As a young adolescent, Jane reads Doctor Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting. “I pretended that I could also speak to the animals, and my friends believed me,” she says. At about age 11, she reads Tarzan of the Apes. “What did Tarzan do?” she playfully asks the audience. “Well, he married the wrong Jane.” These books influence and fuel her dreams and love of animals.
- In 1957, a family friend invites Jane to visit her in Africa. While there, she is encouraged to contact the famous paleontologist, Louis Leakey, who was then curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi. Leakey believed in a hypothesis first put forth by Charles Darwin that humans and chimpanzees share an evolutionary ancestor. According to him, close study of chimpanzees in the wild might reveal something about that common progenitor. He sees in Jane the right personality to live among Africa’s wild animals and begin a long-term study. “Leakey did not want a mind that had been biased by science.”
- On July 14, 1960, Jane Goodall sets up camp at Gombe Stream National Park in what is now Tanzania. Four months later as Jane is walking along a trail, she spots a chimp crouched over a termite mound.She crawls toward him on her elbows and knees and watches as he cleans the leaves off of a twig and uses it as an instrument tool.
- At 26, without a college degree to her name, Jane discovers that despite popular belief, humans are not the only ones to use tools. Her findings restructure the way we look at ourselves and our ancestors. The findings are published in a 1964 issue of National Geographic.
Listen to Jane Goodall’s Ted Talk:
- “David Graybeard” is the name of the first chimp to accept Goodall; thanks to the alpha male, others follow suit. “Chimpanzees had never seen a white ape before, so (initially) they would take one look at me and vanish.
- More discoveries ensue: For instance, chimpanzees hunt and eat meat; if two chimps see each other they may hug or kiss. And “the shocking thing is they have a dark side to them; they can be extremely viscous,” adds Jane. Chimps have been known to ravage and kill neighboring communities except for the few adolescent and females they recruit.
- Thanks to Leakey, Jane earns her Ph.D. in etiology from Cambridge University without first having an undergraduate degree. She is one of the only nine people ever to have a doctoral dissertation accepted by Cambridge.
- When her first book appears In the Shadow of Man, before her Ph.D. is even completed, Jane is scolded and nearly expelled from the program. “I was doing it all wrong,” she says facetiously. Her professors were the ones that said she was doing the study all wrong. They told her that she should have assigned the chimpanzees numbers, not names. And that she could not talk about them having personalities, minds and above all emotions, because at that time, those were things only humans had. Of course we know that Jane was correct all along, and she thanks her childhood teacher for this, her dog Rusty.) “How could I ascribe personalities to the chimps and give them names instead of numbers? I was guilty of anthropomorphizing.” There’s a pause. “But I think it’s foolish to think that animals don’t have passions, intuitions, or emotions.”
- Jane entered the jungle studying to be a scientist and re-emerged in 1986 as a conservationist. Goodall was aware of deforestation along the Gombe Parks’s borders, yet when she flew directly over the area in a small plane, she was shocked by the mile after mile of bare hills. (She became an activist after attending a chimpanzee conference in Chicago in 1986. After learning what was going on all around Africa, she knew she had to do something!)
- While protecting chimpanzees is the core concept of the Jane Goodall Institute, they tackle this issue from various angles, including chimpanzee research, habitat protection, rescue and rehabilitation. They host the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in all of Africa.
- In 2002, long after Jane sets the basic ground rules for contemporary field biology, researchers observe two New Caledonian crows, named Betty and Abel, fashion tools from materials not encountered in the wild. The discovery is made accidentally when Abel takes off with a hook left for them to retrieve their favorite food – pig heart. Betty takes a straight wire and bends it into a hook to lift a small bucket of food from a vertical pipe. She does it repeatedly. Jane explains that the female crow is using the hook as a tool. And people ask, why didn’t the male crow do the same thing and Jane says, because he had a tool, it was his wife. The male was taking the reward every time the female crow would get it with the hook.
- If caterpillars attack one tree, then it lets out a message for other trees to increase their toxic outputs. This is concluded when Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, discovers that when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for a plant that hadn’t been touched, the sound primed the plant’s genetic machinery to produce defense chemicals. “Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth.”
- “If we look around, it’s evident that we are ruining the only home we have.” Jane believes it’s because of a lack of a connection between the head and the heart. “I truly believe that only when we work with the head and the heart, that change can occur. It’s not too late. We can think of the big impact our small choices can make.
- Founded in 1991 by Dr. Goodall and a group of Tanzanian students, Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program is about making positive change happen—for people, for animals and for the environment we all share. The Institute engages the youth of all ages and around the world, challenging them to become environmental and humanitarian leaders in their own communities.
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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