As field biologist and activist, she has spent her life understanding and protecting our chimp cousins.
PUBLISHED APRIL 2, 2014
On April 3, Jane Goodall turns 80. Her work in behavioral primatology, for which the world first came to know her, focused on the chimpanzees of Gombe, a small forest reserve (now a national park) on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, in Tanzania.
She began her chimp studies there in July 1960 and continued until 1986. By then she had become acutely aware of the threats facing wild chimpanzees and of the sufferings of chimps held in captivity for medical research. (See “Being Jane Goddall”)
So she left the satisfactions of doing field biology and became an activist. For almost three decades now she has spent most of her time on the road, lecturing, speaking with schoolchildren, testifying in public, using her gentle but forceful suasion on government officials, world leaders, other scientists, and anyone else she might meet.
Much of her effort is channeled through the Jane Goodall Institute and its programs, such asRoots & Shoots (involving young people especially in efforts to mitigate the human impact on the natural world) and TACARE (promoting conservation-related development in villages surrounding Gombe and elsewhere). She also continues to write—her new book is Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants.
But sometimes even a dinner conversation with a key decision-maker (as she explains below) can yield important results. National Geographic spoke with Jane shortly before her birthday.
Q: Eighty years old. It seems a good time for looking forward.
A: [Laughs.] Somebody asked me the other day at a lecture—they said, “Your life has gone into these neat phases. What do you think the next phase is?”
What do you think the next phase is?
I said, “Well, I suspect it’s death.”
No, no, the next phase is something … else. What are the things you most hope still to get done?
Well, growing Roots & Shoots. I’m really passionate about that. It’s in 136 countries. As far as we can estimate, it’s approximately 160,000 active groups. We got a commitment yesterday to form an adult group among the staff of the World Bank.
And the TACARE program?
All around Gombe the villagers put land aside to be a buffer. The chimps apparently have three times more forest now than ten years ago. Some of the trees are 30 feet high. Other villagers have put land aside to make a corridor toward this other group [of chimps] in the south.
This is how it was originally conceived. Taken a long time, but you mustn’t give up. Now the villagers are our partners instead of our competitors, and they’re realizing the value of the forest to them. Better water supply and no more erosion. No more silting of the valleys, no more mudslides—which killed a few people a while back.
And now coffee? Some of the villagers are growing forest-friendly coffee?
Coffee is going super well. Over 2,000 individual farms, and they’ve got this cooperative. It’s amazing.
So Gombe National Park is less isolated now, and the chimps aren’t necessarily doomed to isolation effects, such as inbreeding?
Yes. Getting towards that. We’re still not sure if it’s going to work. But it’s all we can do. We’ve tried, and it looks as though it might be working.
About chimps in captivity, and their use in medical experiments: You began working against that years ago, yes? As it was then practiced within agencies such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health?
1986, ‘87, I suppose, was the first interaction with the National Institutes of Health about the conditions they were keeping their chimps in. We had the first conference, funded actually by HSUS [Humane Society of the United States] and NIH. It was the first time that lab people and veterinarians had sat down with [animal] welfare people and field people. Ever. I got a lot of flak for that. Sitting down with the enemy. You don’t talk to the enemy, nothing can change.
And that sort of dialogue, that engagement with “the enemy” toward better treatment of chimps, has continued? Have you pressed it with them recently?
Just last year, maybe the year before. Francis Collins is the director of the NIH. I sat next to him at dinner, and he said he didn’t know much about the chimps. Because I asked him. So of course I spent the rest of dinner telling him all about it. Bless him, he got together a committee. And at first it was very biased toward the lab people, but he let me look at it. So we added in some field people, and there was a hearing on the Hill, and I testified at it. And this committee, their finding—do you know what it was? Not one single [research] protocol involving chimps being done today is useful to human health. And so Francis Collins said that they would retire almost all the NIH chimps to sanctuary. He has been wonderful! It’s taken all that time, but we got there.