A conversation with Jane Goodall

Two primates discuss children, animals, the bush meat trade, Dian Fossey, the chimplike behavior of humans and the future of nature.

Published October 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The year 2000 will be the 40th consecutive year of Dr. Jane Goodall's legendary study of chimpanzees at Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Though her research, and her legend, were founded on her ability to sit still, observe and blend into the landscape, today her life is one of near constant movement -- she lectures throughout the United States every fall and spring and is on the road as many as 300 days a year. And 1999 has been especially active for Goodall: Her new book, "Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey," was recently published, and a one-hour television portrait inspired by the book, "Jane Goodall: Reason for Hope," airs on PBS stations Wednesday evening (check local listings for time).

"On my last USA lecture tour I rarely spent two nights in one place," Goodall writes in an essay on her Web site. "There are lectures, new people to meet, receptions, press conferences. My grandmother's favorite text was always, 'As thy days, so shall thy strength be,' which has got me through everything terrible that's ever happened to me. A day's not too much to get through."

Perhaps that text was what got her through last Friday in Manhattan, Kan. Before our late afternoon telephone conversation, Goodall, 65, had been "at the zoo with hundreds of kids, [then] there was a press conference, a talk to volunteers, a talk to zoo keepers and there's a donor dinner," which she would attend that night. Nevertheless, she was unhurried, soft-spoken and enthusiastic, as always, in discussing her work, the natural world and the prospects for its future.

Your life has changed so much since those early days at Gombe, and your travel and speaking schedule sounds hectic. Do you miss that time, which I imagine was much more contemplative?

Those days were idyllic. It was paradise, actually. It was magic. But you know one has to pay back. I feel very strongly that I was so amazingly lucky to have that incredible opportunity. My job now is to save what I love. I seem to have a fairly strong voice and an ability to communicate with most people. And we have to get people's hearts involved.

In those early days of your field study, when you'd sit for weeks and months trying to make contact with the chimpanzees, what kept you going and believing that what you were doing would, in fact, lead to something valuable and important?

It wasn't so much that it would be valuable and important. My goal was to habituate the chimps and learn what they did. The first time I saw them using tools, I actually couldn't believe it. It was just so amazing. So, it wasn't that I hoped to make significant findings. It was that I had a job to do and the job was to get the chimps to stop being frightened of me so I could learn how they lived.

What is the political situation in Tanzania now? Does it prevent you from spending as much time as you'd like at Gombe?

The political situation in Tanzania has always been wonderful for us. The political situation, however, in Congo-Brazzaville, where we have our biggest chimpanzee sanctuary, is horrendous -- it's a civil war. There have been times when our amazingly brave project manager there has said it would be better that no one else comes [to the sanctuary] as it would draw attention to what's going on there. And it would be an extra burden of worry for her.

What's known as the "bush meat" trade -- the killing and butchering for sale of Africa's wild animals, some of which are rare and endangered - is perceived by many people as being a result of human desperation for food.

That's completely and utterly wrong. The bush meat trade is commercial hunting -- hunters going from the city to the end of the logging trails, shooting everything, loading it on trucks and taking it to the city, where it fetches more money than domestic animal meat. Bush meat is a cultural preference, a delicacy. It's not used to feed starving people -- absolutely not.

What's the likelihood of being able to bring an end to the bush meat business?

The only hope is if we can mount a very high-powered government effort to end it, on the one hand, and then, on the ground [among the people], pursue a grass-roots education program. But we don't now have the money to do that very well and we haven't yet succeeded at getting high enough political support.

What about in the United States? I'd think you would be able to gain access to fairly high-level political figures here.

I can, and I feel really badly about this. If only all the conservation groups could somehow get together and work out very, very clearly, step by step, what this initiative would actually be, what it would look like, then I could approach these people. But as yet there is no clear understanding of what to ask them to do.

You see, it's an incredibly complex situation. It isn't just the hunters going out and shooting. Even the presidents of some of these countries actually send soldiers into national parks to shoot wild animals for their feasts. There's a lot of corruption and huge sums of money are involved -- I didn't realize that until quite recently. People are making enormous amounts of money from the bush meat trade. And there's even chimpanzee meat being sold as a delicacy at Congolese restaurants in Europe.

In "Reason for Hope," you write, "Anyone who tries to improve the lives of animals invariably comes in for criticism from those who believe such efforts are misplaced in a world of suffering humanity." You must come up against that point of view quite frequently. How do you respond?

I hear it constantly. And, of course, there are various responses depending on the situation. One response is that once we're prepared to admit that animals have feelings and suffer, then if we're cruel to them -- for whatever reason -- it's demeaning and degrading to us as human beings. And we should share our compassion among feeling beings.

Also, there are so many people involved with the needs of suffering people, including us. I mean, we're not just worrying about the chimpanzees, we're also working with the local people and trying to improve the quality of their lives. And trying to explain to people -- in Africa at least -- that if the wildlife and the habitat disappears, that will lead to [the place becoming a] desert and then the people will suffer a hundred-fold more than they are already.

Also in "Reason for Hope," in a chapter titled "The Roots of Evil," you tell in great detail of making the unpleasant discovery in the 1970s that the idea of the noble ape was as mythical as that of the noble savage. Chimps, like humans, you found, are capable of some rather ugly behavior -- including intercommunity attacks and even isolated instances of cannibalism. That must have been a tough realization to come to grips with.

It was a nightmare time in my life. The chimps [at Gombe] had become such familiar personalities. They weren't exactly friends, but it was close to that. And to suddenly find that these mostly gentle beings were capable of such horrendous brutality was a shock, a real shock. We accept that humans can be like that even though we don't like it. The sad part was to suddenly realize that the chimpanzees were more like us than I used to think.

Given the press of civilization and urban expansion, will large animals living in the wild become a thing of the past in the next century?

It depends. We have a window of opportunity to make change for the future, which I think we owe our children and grandchildren and their children. I feel terrible when I think of the world into which I was born 65 years ago and how we've damaged it in those 65 years.

If we can't find a way off leveling off human population -- and I think that's happening, I really do -- and if we can't find a way of lessening the overconsumption of the affluent societies -- and, again, I believe as our young people today grow up, that will happen, too -- then the horrifying question is: Do we have enough time or are we headed for disaster? A lot of people think we're headed for disaster and that's why I'm concentrating so much on developing this program for young people. They're the ones who are the hope for the future.

You're referring to the Roots & Shoots program?

Yes, it started in 1991 in Tanzania, came over to America at the end of 1993. In January of 1994 there were 11 registered groups in North America. Now there are well over 1,000 [in 50 countries]. And it's spreading so fast -- because I've finally got staff and a little money behind it and dedicated, enthusiastic teachers. It's suddenly taking off. It's very inspiring.

We just had our second summit for college and university students. And it was just so amazing to see these young people get together to tackle the question: How do we get the message out, to make the world around us a better place for animals, people and the environment? How do we get that message to our communities? And the ideas they came up with and their passion! That's what I see when I travel around like this.

One would assume, given that you and your work are so widely known at this point, that money must just flow into the Jane Goodall Institute.

False. It should. I don't know what we've done wrong. But we are about to start an endowment drive to keep our work going, especially the Africa program, and I'm sure it's going to be successful.

You mentioned the chimpanzee sanctuary in Congo and then there's the facility at Gombe in Tanzania. What's actually taking place at those two locations now?

At Gombe, the longest study of wild animal behavior in the world is continuing --monitoring the behavior of these individual chimpanzees that are so well-known and so well-studied, and bringing in a few people to do specialized studies of certain aspects of their behavior. A lot of the research is done by Tanzanians from surrounding villages, which is why we've had no poaching, because they're involved in the project. We study baboons there as well. We also have a big program to try to improve the lives of the people living in the villages around this tiny park, an island of forest surrounded by a huge [cleared] area. And that's working; they understand that we care about them as well as the chimpanzees.

That was an effort that you started almost at the beginning. Shortly after you arrived in Gombe four decades ago, your mother, who accompanied you, started a medical program for the local villagers.

That's right. She set up a little clinic. And we've always employed as many of the local people as we could and we've always tried to involve them with the chimps, and it's worked.

Now in Congo-Brazzaville we have a sanctuary built by the Conoco Oil company for about 25 chimps. We were very happy with Conoco because they had far and away the better environmental ethic than any of the other big oil companies who were exploring. And, amazingly, even after Conoco pulled out of Congo [after determining their oil operation was not going to be commercially viable] they left a team behind to complete the sanctuary. They did the right thing.

But that sanctuary, because of various situations around Congo, now has 71 chimps, which is just a nightmare. We can't release them because of the war, which has been simmering on and off for over three years. And it's much too crowded in the facility. We can't put them back in the wild; we've got wild chimps coming around. We can't get cement -- prices go up because the whole infrastructure of the country's been destroyed. We have to build new enclosures -- we must, it's dangerous now. So that's our nightmare program.

Then we have two sanctuaries which are more or less self-supporting: one in Uganda and one in Kenya. And we're starting one in South Africa.

Were you close at all with Dian Fossey when she was alive? I know you
both knew Louis Leakey well. [In 1967, Fossey established a research
camp in Rwanda, where three years later she made the first friendly
gorilla-to-human contact ever recorded. Her subsequent book on the
plight of the world's largest primates, "Gorillas in the Mist," was made
into a motion picture starring Sigourney Weaver. Fossey was murdered in
her cabin at her Rwanda camp on Dec. 26, 1985. The crime has never
been solved.]

Louis sent Dian Fossey to Gombe for a little while, to see how it was done. She resented that enormously. She just felt she knew how to do it on her own. Anyway, that was nothing to do with me, that was Louis. I saw her on and off over the years, quite often. We would discuss things. I tried so hard to persuade Dian to involve the local people in her project and she wouldn't.

And an adversarial situation developed between her and the local people in the area where she was studying the mountain gorillas?

Yes, that's why she died, I'm sure. She felt that if the Africans got close to the gorillas the way she was, the gorillas would then be more vulnerable to poachers. And I would say to her, "Our chimps know the difference between my field staff and strangers. I'm sure your gorillas would." Anyway, the poachers at that time were poaching for money. So, if she gave them jobs and they got to know what the gorillas were like, they'd love them, just like the Gombe field staff do with the chimps.

How have your relationships with chimps and other animals, and your understanding of them, affected your relationships with people?

I'm not sure I can answer that. What I know from working with animals is that we should show more respect for the amazing beings with which we share the planet. How working with them has affected my relationships with people ... I'm not sure that it has. How were you meaning?

I was just curious if the long time you've spent studying animals, and your insights into their behavior, have had any effect you can discern on your interactions with your family and friends?

What it may have done is that I do watch people; I like to watch body language and that kind of thing.

Do we share a certain amount of body language with chimps?

Oh, so much! I love to look for chimplike behavior in people just like I enjoy looking for humanlike behavior in chimps.

Your son lives in Tanzania. Is he involved in any of the activities at Gombe?

No, not a bit. He just doesn't like it.

That's just like a kid.

Yes, that's the way they are. But it's interesting. He's got two children now, my grandchildren; and his son, who's 7 -- I think it jumps a generation -- this little boy is passionate about animals. He's a fantastic boy.

Where will you be spending New Year's eve?

I'll be at home, in England. I call it home because I grew up there and my mother still lives there. I couldn't be anywhere except with her.

What's a good resolution for humanity as the new millennium approaches?

The most important thing we have to realize, if we really do want to save the planet for our great-grandchildren -- with a quality of life not too different from what we have today -- is that we've got to stop leaving the decisions up to the decision makers. We've got to become the decision makers. We've got to realize that what we do each day really does impact the world. For example, we can make ethical choices as to what we buy and don't buy. We can change business quicker than any kind of legislation. In a consumer-driven society, businesses aren't going to make things that people don't buy.

We've got to somehow stop thinking that because there are 6 billion people in the world, what we do can't make any difference. As education progresses around the world, which it really is, people are understanding what's dangerous to the environment. They understand what they should and shouldn't do. But we still have people thinking, "It doesn't matter what I do, it's just me." If we can change that thinking around, it will have an enormous impact.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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