There’s something rather terrifying about meeting a childhood icon. On the one hand is the thrill of finally coming close to someone so treasured; on the other, there’s the utter fear that they will disappoint.
We met Jane Goodall on Friday night, and we’re very happy to say that she was every bit as impressive in person as she seemed on the National Geographic specials we watched after school many years ago. Goodall was here to reflect on her career as a researcher and activist, marking her decades of work with chimpanzees. “Jane Goodall: Fifty Years of Chimps and Change” was also, fittingly, a fundraiser, with ticket proceeds going to support the Jane Goodall Institute and its programs.
Goodall is as we hoped to find her: kind, humble, grounded in research but not hampered by academic jargon. After she was introduced she bounded up the stairs and began by telling us how a chimp says “hello.” (We’d tell you, but it’s kind of hard to reproduce in writing.) And then she took the audience through the journey she’d been on, starting with her early meeting of Louis Leakey, who was the one who sent her into the wild to study chimpanzees in the first place. He chose her, Goodall took pains to point out, precisely because she lacked formal academic training: Leakey was convinced this would free her to be a true empiricist, able to observe her environment without theoretical predispositions to colour her perceptions. Absurdly, the British government would not take responsibility for Goodall’s well-being—a young woman alone in the field—unless she travelled with a companion. And so, in what now seems an epic absurdity, the world-renowned primatologist brought her mother with her on her first assignments.
David Greybeard and Fifi, two of the first chimps Goodall knew; Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, Tanganyika. Photo courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute.
Chimpanzees, Goodall quickly learned, are a little on the shy side. “They would take one look at this peculiar white ape, and run away,” she told us, “they are very conservative.” Eventually though, one chimp was brave enough to make contact with her, and Goodall—in ignorance of the academic convention that study subjects are assigned numbers—named him David Greybeard. (It’s one of the many subtle ways Goodall’s approach to her work has made her such an effective ambassador: by naming the chimps, she was expressing how natural it was to her to view them as individuals with personalities, and by doing so made it more natural for all of us to see them that way too. This was, when she began, completely revolutionary.) Over time Goodall built up relationships with many more chimps, observing their behaviour and upending much received wisdom about the differences between humans and other species. Probably her most startling finding was that chimpanzees fashioned and used tools—up until then, this was taken to be one of the defining characteristics of humans.
Despite her deep love of spending time in the field, however, in the early ’90s Goodall decided to leave. In the wake of a conference she attended, during which the extent of the deforestation and environmental degradation in and around Tanzania became clear, Goodall turned her energy to conservation advocacy. She now spends roughly three hundred days a year travelling, making the case for conservation wherever she can.”We have compromised the future of our young people. You hear the saying ‘We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children.’ Well, when you borrow you plan to pay back. We’ve been stealing, stealing, stealing the future of our children.”
Rather than railing against governments, Goodall has chosen to focus on working directly with people, both in Africa and outside of it, who can make better, more conservation-friendly choices. One of her key projects has been helping people in communities near chimpanzee habitats, providing clean water, micro-loans, and other support so that poaching and destructive land-clearing become less appealing, less necessary for survival. She’s also developed an extensive programme for youth, called Roots and Shoots, in the belief that it is only by influencing younger generations that real change can come about.
Goodall still manages to get back to Gombe twice a year, to spend some time in the forests and reconnect with the chimpanzees she knows there. And for an all-too-brief hour on Friday night, she took us along for the trip.