A message of hope

19th March 2020

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Legendary primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace Dr Jane Goodall talks to Chris Seekings about her rise to stardom, the fragile state of the environment, politics and the indomitable human spirit

Dr Jane Goodall is a global icon, admired across the world for her groundbreaking research into chimpanzees and tireless pursuit of environmental protection. Her scientific discoveries helped change the way we relate to animals, inspiring millions to protect the natural world.

Her story has been told countless times in books and documentaries, but it is one well worth telling again. In March 1957, an enthusiastic 23-year-old Dr Goodall travelled unaccompanied by ship for three weeks from England to visit a friend in Kenya, something that was unheard of at the time. “There weren't young people going off, as they do today, having experiences in foreign countries – it just wasn't happening,“ she tells me.

This was a fulfilment of a lifelong ambition for Dr Goodall, who had been fascinated by Africa after reading The Story of Doctor Doolittle, The Jungle Book, and Tarzan of the Apes. “When I went to the Serengeti it was just complete magic, everything I dreamed Africa would be,“ she says gleefully. “Meeting a rhino, meeting a lion, walking out on the plains, it was really exciting.“

She soon found work as a secretary to paleontologist Dr Louis Leakey, who was so impressed by her knowledge of natural history that he asked her to become his team's chimpanzee researcher. It wasn't long before she would turn our understanding of chimpanzees on its head and be catapulted into international stardom. “It was what I had wanted to do so since I was 10, and I had read everything I could about Africa, so I wasn't daunted at all.“

Redefining man

She began her observations in what is now the Gombe National Park in 1960, with no scientific background or training. “My big worry was how I was going to find the chimps,“ she says. “I remember going along on a boat and looking up at these slopes and forests for the first time, thinking, 'How on earth am I going to find the chimps in all this?'“ Undeterred, she immersed herself in chimpanzee society, and took the unscientific approach of assigning names to some of the monkeys, including Frodo, Fifi and the now famous David Greybeard, named after his white facial hair.

One day, when looking up through the canopy with her binoculars, she observed David Greybeard eating meat – something that had never been recorded before. Another day, she saw him utilising a piece of grass to pull termites out of the ground before slurping them down, and then stripping leaves from a twig to use as a tool to forage for more. “I knew that nobody had expected chimpanzees to eat meat, so it was very exciting,“ she says. “I wasn't surprised to see them using tools, but I knew scientists didn't think it was possible. They even said they must have learnt it from humans, that's how snooty they were.“

She already had more notable scientific discoveries under her belt than most amass over a career, with Dr Leakey declaring: “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.“

Animal warfare

Dr Goodall went on to observe many remarkable personality traits, along with some distressing ones – she was shocked to see examples of chimpanzees killing and eating each other. “The warfare and cannibalism was horrible,“ she says. “It unfortunately made them more like us than I had thought.“

She also discovered what it's like to be on the receiving end of animal cruelty. One chimpanzee, whose mother was a top-ranking female, could be particularly nasty. “Frodo was a bully, a spoiled brat. He once dragged me and stamped on me, and then came back and did it again. He did it to quite a few people, but I think me more than anyone else – I don't know why...“

She became an international star when National Geographic broadcast footage of her work in Africa to millions of homes worldwide. After attending Cambridge University, she became only the eighth person to obtain a PhD without a BA or BSc – a feat even more impressive considering the dominance of men in science.

Conservation and compassion

Her discoveries opened up debates around our relationships with animals that endure to this day, one of which concerns culling. “I don't think we should cull if cull equals kill,“ she says. “On the other hand, if we have messed up the environment so much that a species overpopulates, do you let them overgraze and die of starvation?“ She admits that we might not have the answers yet. “You could perhaps find a way of making them infertile. I can't help thinking that the one thing that makes us different from animals is our intellect, and we should, if we really tried, be able to do something other than killing.“

The Jane Goodall Institute is still heavily involved in conservation, but the interconnectedness of deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change has made her mission far broader. After learning at a conference in 1986 about how humans were destroying habitats, she started a schedule that now sees her travel around 300 days a year. “I didn't know what to do, but from that moment on I stopped being in the field and began this crazy travelling.“

She discovered that many humans living in African forests were also suffering. Crippling poverty, a lack of good health and education facilities, degradation of the land and ethnic violence were all compounding problems. “Too many people were living there for the land to support,“ she says. “We gave them tools to conserve their forest, helping them understand it was for their own future, too.“

Davos deliberations

Climate change was high on the agenda at the World Economic Forum's summit in Davos this year, and Dr Goodall was present for the deliberations. She tells me that, although most politicians understand the urgency of the situation, few see an immediate threat. “A lot of them think 'I'm not going to risk losing my position to make things better in 100 years'. They just want to hang on to power to get richer, destroying the environment for temporary gains.“

While in Davos, she attracted controversy with comments on human population growth, with some accusing her of oversimplifying the issue. “Unlimited economic development on a planet of finite resources where the human population is growing means more meat, which means feeding them billions of animals, and therefore more methane emissions,“ she says. “We're already using natural resources faster than we can replenish them. You can't just ignore it.“

Population matters

Dr Goodall was ahead of the curve on unsustainable population growth, and first started discussing it in the 1970s. “No other organisation would talk about it, as it's much too politically sensitive, but I thought we must.“

She says education is key, explaining how her institute provides scholarships for girls and family planning information in Africa. Around Gombe, it was traditional for women to have eight to 10 children. “Today, many women are saying three to four. We would like it to go down to two, but three to four is much better than eight to 10.“

She is a patron of Population Matters, and coined the phrase “voluntary population optimisation“, saying that forced population control is an unhelpful answer. She has also been criticised for targeting poorer countries. “But I say that rich families, certainly in the US, have five to six children too. Each one uses up about the same resources as 10 poor African children, but all these far-right Christian people just grab onto anything to be aggressive and don't listen to what I am actually saying.“

The awakening

Dr Goodall believes Western lifestyles aren't sustainable, and bemoans the “hundreds of little plastic stupid bottles“ in hotel rooms and other examples of wastefulness she has come across during her travels around the world. However, she says attitudes are changing. “You can't ignore the fact that the ice is melting, or that storms, floods, droughts and fires are worse. When I began there wasn't an environmental movement because it wasn't really needed.“

She gives much credit to Greta Thunberg for the awakening, but is concerned about her wellbeing. “It can't be good for her to be put in all these different positions – it must be a very heavy burden.“

In 1991, her institute set up its Roots & Shoots programme to bring young people together to work on environmental and humanitarian issues. It has now spread to more than 50 countries. “They're out there, rolling up their sleeves, taking action. They're planting trees, working on plastic reduction, recycling and reusing, and urging their parents to change.“

Is her globetrotting unsustainable? “I don't have a private jet, and Roots & Shoots will help plant five million trees this year,“ she explains. “I said to Greta actually: 'You know I fly?' She looked at up me and said, 'Well, you have to'. I wouldn't do it if the message wasn't resonating.“

Four reasons to hope

Population growth, corruption, unsustainable lifestyles and poverty are our four biggest challenges, Dr Goodall says. She cites young people as one reason for hope. “Everywhere I go there are young people, from kindergarten to university, wanting to tell me what they've been doing to make the world a better place. There is so much enthusiasm, determination, imagination and success in what they do.“

Another reason for optimism is “our amazing intellect“. “It's very peculiar that the most intellectual species is destroying its only home,“ she says. “Nevertheless, the human brain is coming up with all sorts of innovations, and we need governments to subsidise them rather than their old buddies in the fossil fuel industry.“

The resilience of nature is also grounds for optimism, with Dr Goodall explaining how trees have returned to bare hills in Gombe thanks to her institute's Tacare programme. “Areas which we have completely destroyed can be given back to nature. Nature will take over, given a chance, and animals on the brink of extinction can be rescued – and have been.“

Finally, she says it is the “indomitable human spirit“ that gives her reason for hope, praising the “people who tackle what seems impossible, won't give up, and so often succeed“. This year is the 60th anniversary of her work at the Gombe National Park, and despite turning 86 this month, she has no plans to slow down. “I can't retire because there is so much to be done – we're in such dark times, and if you don't have hope you don't do anything,“ she explains. “This is why I do this crazy schedule. After every lecture at least one person will say, 'I had given up, but I promise now I will do my bit', so how could I retire?“

She admits it's difficult to remain hopeful amid all the doom and gloom, but in a message for IEMA members, says: “There are now millions of people acting and thinking differently. I hope that people working in sustainability look at the big picture, and all our efforts together help them see what a big difference they're making.“

Image credit: Getty


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