Ambassador of the chimps

Rupi Mangat interviews the pioneer of chimpanzee conservation, Dr Jane Goodall

Ambassador_chimpsThe most recognisable face of the chimp champs is Dr Jane Goodall, the first person to study chimpanzees in the wild. Her many titles include DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace, and GRASP (Great Apes Survival Partnership) Ambassador. With no formal education in the sciences, her research on chimpanzees in the wild was so groundbreaking that it led the late Dr Louis Leakey to make his famous remark: “We must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘Man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” Soon to be 80, Dr Goodall spends 300 days of the year travelling around the world to raise awareness of the plight of the chimpanzees – our nearest relatives on the primate lane – with only one per cent DNA difference. Meeting Dr Goodall in Nairobi on one of her busy talk tours, the first thing that throws me off balance is that she’s incredibly young-looking and so charming. We start chatting about chimps and her lifelong journey with them.

In 1957, despite having no scientific qualifications, you were brave enough to approach the well-known evolutionary scientist Dr Louis Leakey. How did this come about?

My friends said to me, “If you really care about animals, you should meet Dr Leakey.” I did, and he asked me thousands of questions. Luckily l was able to answer most of them because l had read a lot about animals. I got a job as his secretary.

What was it like to work with him?
He could be impossible, but he was a genius – larger than life. He was very far ahead of the others. He believed that learning about chimps could give us a clue to early humans’ behaviour.

You had never been to Africa; your family couldn’t afford to send you to college, and you could only afford your fare to Nairobi after saving money working as a secretary. What made Dr Leakey think that you were the person to study chimps in the wild?

Dr Leakey asked if I would like to come to Olduvai Gorge, and I agreed. At that time (1958), none of the human fossils had been found at Olduvai Gorge. It was pristine – full of lions and other wildlife and very few people – even the Maasai. All we did was dig for fossils all day long, and in the evening my friend and I would go for long walks.

Dr Leakey’s wife, Mary, became equally famous as the paleoanthropologist who discovered the first fossilised Proconsul skull, an extinct ape and many other things including the 3.6 million year old Laetoli footprints of early hominids near Olduvai Gorge. One day I was out with her dog Toots. Toots had started chasing a mouse near a bush when a lion appeared. At that time, even the lions had not seen many people. I was more terrified of Mary if something happened to Toots than I was of the lion. That night, safely back around the campfire, Dr Leakey mentioned the job – he had obviously been impressed by my cool demeanour in the field.

What happened next?
There was no money for research and I had promised my family I would return home to England after a year. I got a job at London Zoo and learned everything that there was to learn about chimpanzees in captivity. Until then there had never been any research on chimpanzees in the wild. A year later, Dr Leakey had the money and I returned.

What was your first emotion on seeing a chimp in the wild?
It was utter dismay. It was a fleeting glimpse. The chimps had never seen a white person. This happened for weeks until one chimpanzee, David Greybeard, lost his fear and came down to camp and took a bunch of bananas. I then asked my cook to leave the bananas out every day so that l could start identifying them.

What are your memories of those early days in Gombe, where you began your life’s study of chimpanzees?
It was beautiful. I was with my mother because the British authorities said that I had to be accompanied because it was dangerous for a woman to be alone. There had been uprisings in the [then] Belgian Congo and they believed that the same might happen in what was then Tanganyika. The chief at Gombe was not happy with me being there. He thought that I was a spy and that I would give false records of chimpanzees sighted – that I would write ten instead of one just so that the area would be protected as a national park and the people would be asked to move. He sent his son to be with me. The chief’s son lasted three days and left because he could not be ready by 5.30am to spend the day in the forest. After that I was left alone to work.

What is Gombe like?
Beautiful. Back then, I got to know every tree and valley in it. Today it’s 30 square miles in area when it should have been twice the size. That was down to a stupid game warden who flew over the area and saw beacons and thought that they marked the park. So we lost half the park (as the old map of the park shows). It would have meant twice the space for the chimpanzees and double the number of chimpanzees today.

How does it feel to have been a baroness and now a Dame?
I’m not interested in titles. But I am proud of my PhD – because l had to work really hard for it.

Dr Goodall is one of a handful in the world to obtain a PhD without a first degree.

How many chimpanzees are there in the wild today?
There are 100 in Gombe. Their range spreads across the equatorial forests of Africa – from west Africa to western Uganda, western Tanzania and South Sudan. In the 1960s there were between one and two million chimpanzees. The estimate today is 300,000 – but we don’t really know. However, we do know that they are disappearing very fast due to the bushmeat trade, deforestation and the huge illegal market to China for zoos.

What’s in store for chimpanzees in the wild?
Unless we can make corridors for them in the forests, they have had it. There will be inbreeding and males killing each other from competition and protecting their boundaries.

On the positive side, through our work, there is three times more forest around the park (Gombe) than ten years ago. We work with 52 villages to create the leafy corridors. A female from the outside used the corridor and appeared in Gombe, which shows that the corridors are important. But all these leafy corridors in the Albertine Rift are in the same place as where all the oil companies are fighting now. It’s a real challenge to save them.

Where’s the hope for the future?
It lies in the youth. That’s why l started the Roots and Shoots programme for youth, which goes from pre-school to university and is globally linked. It’s to empower the younger generation to take action. Everyone can make a difference and it’s up to us to choose what sort of difference we want to make.

What would you like to see in the future?
To protect enough large areas where animals can live unharassed.