Celebrating Jane Goodall, the Chimpanzee Lady

The self-taught primatologist and environmentalist is currently touring the country. Yesterday, she delivered a talk titled ‘Reasons for Hope’ at the Louis Leaky Memorial Auditorium in the Nairobi Museum

Perhaps no other person has advanced our understanding of chimpanzees as Dr Dame Jane Goodall. Her visit to Kenya this week will likely be a nostalgic return to where it all began.

It was while visiting a friend in Kenya in 1956 that 23-year-old Goodall contacted the eminent anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey to discuss wildlife. Although she had no prior training, Leakey identified in the eager young woman the sort of perceptiveness and self-taught knowledge of wildlife that could prove useful if harnessed. He offered Goodall a secretary job at his office in the Coryndon Museum (now the Nairobi National Museum) and later, she became fossil research assistant at Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge research station in Tanzania.

Another of Leakey’s interests at the time was primates, which he viewed as an important link to understanding human evolution. Due to health challenges, Leakey could not undertake the research but he hatched another plan. He brought together three women nicknamed the ‘Trimates’ — the late Dian Fossey, Goodall and the German-born Birute Galdikas — and tasked them with studying gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans respectively. Ironically, one of Goodall’s favourite toys as a child was a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee.

Leakey was involved in a project in Gombe Park, on the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika, which was in need of apprentices to study chimpanzees because not much was known about their behaviour in the wild. The 26-year-old Goodall accepted the assignment and, in 1960, headed for the Gombe forest, hardly the sort of environment for an English debutante with just secretarial skills and no university education.

Her childhood fascination with animals was probably foundational in her determination to understand chimpanzees. Born in London in 1934, Goodall grew up in Bournemouth, a large coastal town in southern England. The story is told of how, as a four-year-old, she once spent five hours inside a small henhouse to figure out where eggs came from while outside, her family frantically searched for her everywhere. As to the tough bush-living conditions, perhaps it helped that Goodall grew up in the difficult years of World War II when food, fuel and household items were in short supply.

In Gombe, she employed old-fashioned ‘watch and learn’ methods with a strong aptitude for observation. Long hours and days were spent out in the forests, watching and waiting. At first the chimpanzees fled at her approach and it took weeks for them to let her approach.

But like the little girl who triumphantly discovered how chickens lay eggs, Goodall’s persistence paid off with some ground-breaking zoological findings: that chimpanzees eat meat and even hunt for prey; they can use rudimentary tools to obtain food; they exhibit intricate, caring relationships within family groups; and that they can ‘plan and execute’ vicious warfare on opponents.

Her breakthrough findings shattered long-held beliefs that chimps are vegetarian and that only humans make tools. Observations of their high mental capacity, reasoned actions and a type of self-awareness gave more evidence of the social closeness between humans and chimpanzees.

“Primates, and particularly great apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos, are literally our closest living relatives on earth,” says Douglass Cress, programme coordinator with Great Apes Survival Partnership. “They share so many of the same traits – love, fear, envy, joy – and their DNA is up to 98 per cent identical to our own.”

Goodall’s pioneering discovery of tool usage spurred tool-making research in other animals and Leakey is quoted as saying: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Gaining respect from the science community was not smooth sailing. That Goodall had no university degree worked against her. Her unorthodox method of naming the chimpanzees earned her ridicule from scientists for whom numbering animals was the norm. Goodall, however, stuck to her unconventional practice and continued to mentor science students in the same way.

Her feeding bananas to chimps to draw them into observation distance has also been criticised by some zoologists who suggest it may have contributed to fighting between chimpanzee troops. More recently, her book Seeds of Hope (2013) was faulted for plagiarising substantial sections from Wikipedia and other websites. Goodall has acknowledged and apologised for not properly citing her sources and the later edition was corrected.

In all, Goodall spent more than 50 years in Gombe. During this time she met and married Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch photographer with National Geographic commissioned to document Goodall’s work. Together, Goodall and Lawick started the Gombe Stream Research Centre, now a world-recognised chimpanzee research facility. They also had a son, Hugo Eric Louis, who is only her child.

Their marriage dissolved in 1974 partly from their disparate careers, which kept them apart for long periods. In 1975, Goodall married Derek Bryceson, director of Tanzania’s national parks. Sadly, he died of cancer five years later. Goodall never remarried after this.

In 1965, Goodall shored up her academic credentials with a PhD in Ethology (the study of animal behaviour) from Cambridge University. This was quite unusual for somebody without undergraduate credentials but a testament to the growing respect for her hands-on fieldwork.

Today she is the recipient of more than 10 honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the world and more than twice as many honours, including the prestigious National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, The Kyoto Price and the Tanzania Kilimanjaro Medal. In 2004, she was invested by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace as a Dame of the British Empire – one of the highest civilian awards and the female equivalent of receiving a knighthood.

During the decades spent in the forests Goodall noted with concern the changing environment around her. With population growth came an increasing demand for land and natural resources. Forests were disappearing in Tanzania and across Africa as impoverished people struggled to survive. When she founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 for purposes of scientific research and great apes preservation, another of its goals became habitat protection and supporting sustainable livelihoods for communities neighbouring the forests.

Forest devastation continued almost unabated in the 1980s as did bush meat hunting and poaching of chimpanzees for the illegal animal trade. Witnessing this destruction prompted Goodall to quit her quiet forest life and start campaigning for conservation on the basis that effectual wildlife protection was dependent on finding solutions to human needs.

Today, Goodall is as renowned for her conservation drive as for her chimpanzee research. She is also a UN Ambassador for Peace and an ambassador of Unep’s Great Apes Survival Partnership based in Nairobi.

While great apes do not naturally exist in Kenya, the Ol Pejeta Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Nanyuki has more than 40 resident chimpanzees, most of them orphaned from animal trafficking. The sanctuary was established in 1993 with a handful of primates that were relocated from Burundi when civil war broke out.

“The same cartels that operate in ivory, rhino horn, guns, drugs and money also traffic in apes, with the slight difference that apes are most valuable as live trade, which makes their rescue so time-sensitive,” explains Cress, who has known Goodall for decades. “As a result, Kenya’s efforts to crack down on any illegal wildlife trade supports efforts to halt the illegal trade in great apes.”

Over the years Goodall encountered numerous youth who were passionate about animals and habitats but concerned about the state of the environment around them. Consequently her institute founded Roots amp; Shoots in 1991, a global programme that facilitates youth-led initiatives to address environmental concerns in local communities.

Now 81, the slender-framed Goodall with a ponytail of grey hair and frequently wearing polo necks and warm cardigans is still traipsing around the world fighting for habitat conservation and ethical treatment of animals. She travels almost 300 days in the year and yesterday, she gave a talk titled ‘Reasons for Hope’ at the Louis Leaky Memorial Auditorium in the Nairobi Museum.

The event is facilitated by Grasp and the Kenya Museum Society. “Dr Goodall will share how she blends her experience in nature and her deeper understanding of the world around us and offer ideas to get involved and protect our planet,” says Lucy Njeri, the KMS office manager. “This talk will reassure the audience that there is still hope to save our planet, despite of the environmental crisis threatening the future of our planet.”