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Jane Goodall: ‘We’ve got to rethink our relationship with the natural world’

It’s been over 60 years since a young Jane Goodall arrived in Africa to study chimpanzees. Today, the world-renowned primatologist is enthusiastic about new thinking aroundthe environment and full of hope for the future of the planet we all inhabit.

Jane Goodall: ‘We’ve got to rethink our relationship with the natural world’

One of the curiosities of lockdown is being invited — virtually, at least — into someone’s home for an unexpected glimpse into their life. Dame Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, is sitting in her study, talking me through the photos on her bookshelf behind her.

“That’s me,” she says, holding a framed black-and-white picture of a much- younger Goodall with her pet dog, Rusty, a handsome black mix-breed. “He was my childhood teacher.”

It was Rusty who first taught a 15-year-old Goodall, growing up on the south coast of England, about the fundamentals of animal behaviour. “He was the one who enabled me to stand up to the professors at Cambridge, when they told me chimps didn’t have personalities, minds or emotions,” she explains. “If you spend time with any animal you know perfectly well the professors were wrong … and I think they knew they were wrong, too.”

Dressed in a forest-green shirt, with her white hair tied back behind her head, Goodall is a force of nature — as well as an expert on it. Since she set up the first Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) in 1977 — there are now chapters in 35 countries — she has become a leading ambassador in the move for environmental awareness. Before the coronavirus outbreak, her activism meant travelling across the world — on average 300 days a year — giving lectures, speeches and addresses.

“By the time you get to 86, you’ve obviously got less time left,” she says. “You don’t know how long you’ve got, and there’s so much to do. I know it made a difference only because everybody told me it did, and that their lives have changed. People who’d lost hope would come up after a lecture and say, ‘Well, I promise you, I’ll do my bit now. You’ve given me hope.’ Hope is so important.”

Back in the beginning

Last year was the 60th anniversary since Goodall first reached the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, where her studies of chimpanzee behaviour would change the way we thought about animals forever. It was here, back in 1960, that she observed a chimpanzee she had nicknamed David Greybeard using a stem of grass as a rudimentary tool to help extract termites from a nest. Up until this time, such everyday innovation was considered a uniquely human trait.

As part of the celebrations, Goodall has been re-reading her first book, In The Shadow of Man, which became a bestseller when it was published in 1971, and sifting through never-before-seen photos from her archive for a forthcoming new edition. Dubbed “an instant animal classic” by Time magazine, the recollections in those pages remain hugely meaningful. “I’ve only got to read a sentence that I wrote way back and I’m right there again,” she says, wistfully.

Jane writing up her field notes in her tent at Gombe.

She hasn’t been to Gombe for a year now; she was due back in February 2020 but had to cancel due to the COVID-19 outbreak. She must miss it terribly, I suggest. “Well, it’s so different from how it was. People who didn’t know it how it was, they love it. It’s wonderful, magic. But I was spoiled, I guess. I had it to myself.” When she first arrived, she took up residence 500ft above Lake Tanganyika to observe chimpanzees that became “almost like part of my family”.

Goodall is hardly one for nostalgia, however. There just isn’t the time. Lockdown may have restricted her movement but it has certainly not seen her workload slacken off. “I’ve never been busier in my entire life. Never!” she proclaims. “It’s just morning till night with Zooms and Skypes and video messages and interviews and podcasts. It just goes on and on.” She chuckles, softly, to herself. “Everybody seems to want to talk to Jane.”

Chimp Zinda fishing for termites in Gombe National Park.

Already, in 2020, Goodall has called for restrictions on wildlife trafficking and the sale of live animals at “wet markets”, not unlike the one in Wuhan, China, where many believe COVID-19 originated. “The thing about COVID is that we brought this upon ourselves in part, by our disrespect of nature, destroying the natural world, forcing animal species in contact with each other and with humans,” says Goodall, pointing out how often creatures are trafficked in “very unsanitary conditions”.

With the popular bushmeat markets in Africa and so-called ‘factory farming’, crowding animals into confined spaces, also contributing, a disease like this was only a matter of time. “Of course, nobody could predict the kind of pandemic this is, which has had such a disruptive effect, but part of it is our fault. We’re getting closer and closer and closer to more and more different animals and along with the animals come their diseases. It is the  same disrespect of nature that’s led to BEA the climate crisis as well.”

In early 2020, Goodall also joined forces with the Trillion Trees campaign, announcing her commitment to restore or replant five million trees when she attended the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. While planting trees will help mitigate climate change, she sees it as a two-pronged project. “We need to plant the trees. But even more important now is to save our remaining rain forests and biodiversity. They are going so fast.”

When I tell Goodall that the theme of this issue of MiNDFOOD is ‘Reset, Rethink, Reboot’, she is keen to expand on what those words mean to her. “We’ve got to rethink our relationship with the natural world. We are part of it. We depend on it. And although some people would like to think that we’re totally separate from it, we’re not,” she states. “We depend on it for food, for water, for clean air, for clean water, and we’re destroying it so fast because of business interests.”

While her voice remains measured, she’s warming to the theme now. “We’ve got to rethink, ‘What does it mean to be successful?’ At the moment, most people would say, well, it’s accumulation of money and power. So we’ve got to rethink what is a successful life; a life where surely you can enjoy life, enjoy nature, where you can; yes, earn enough to look after your family, but not be constantly in this rat race. We’ve got to get away from that, and calm down.”

Moving forward, Goodall wants individuals to exercise more conscious choices — and that includes the politicians they vote for. “As some of the current world leaders move on, hopefully, others will take their place and you will have a different mindset, who understand … or, I should say, that actually care about future generations and the health of the planet. Because surely most leaders must actually understand this.”

Jane Goodall watches young Gaia groom her mother Gremlin who cradles her newborn twins, Gombe National Park, Tanzania, East Africa 1998

One of the JGI’s greatest achievements might be the Roots & Shoots programme, which in 1991 began educating high school students in Tanzania. Now it has spread to 68 countries, with participants ranging from kindergarten to university age. “The great thing is that some of our original members are now in positions of power. And they’re making a difference and they seem to hang on to the values they acquired in that programme.”

While there’s no doubt that many younger people are more eco-conscious now, Goodall strikes a note of caution when we talk about the work of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist who inspired children across the globe to protest about climate change by striking. “She’s done an awful lot to raise awareness,” says Goodall, “but I think an awful lot of children just went [to the protests] because they wanted to take a day off. I know that’s true, because mothers have told me.”

In her early days at Gombe, Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest below for chimpanzees.

When I ask who Goodall’s heroes are, her answers are — surprisingly — literary. “They came from books. We didn’t have cinemas, we didn’t have TV. I mean, Doctor Dolittle was a real hero, of the ‘Doctor Dolittle’ books [by Hugh Lofting]. And Tarzan. Mowgli, from The Jungle Book. They were my role models. I suppose in real life, my uncle was an amazing role model. And my grandmother too; how she battled through, losing her husband, being left with no money, four children to take care of. She was remarkable.”

Goodall still lives in the house — in the seaside town of Bournemouth — that belonged to her grandmother, who later bequeathed it to her three daughters. “They left it to me and my sister. And we can’t sell it unless the whole family agrees. We don’t want to sell it. So I’m here with her and her daughter, her daughter’s partner and [her] two grandsons.” Also present is Goodall’s son, Hugo, from her first marriage to wildlife photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick. “He came over from Tanzania for two weeks to get a visa. And he got caught by lockdown.”

Family closeness

It somehow feels apt that a woman like Goodall, who travels so frequently and so extensively, should put down roots near to where she grew up. Born in Hampstead, London, in 1934, her family moved to Bournemouth when she was young. Her father, Mortimer, was an engineer who, when World War II was declared, went out to Burma to build bridges.

Together with her sister, Judy, Goodall was raised by her mother, Margaret, who wrote novels under the pen-name ‘Vanne Morris Goodall’. “We were a very close-knit extended family. My uncle provided most of the money that we lived on … he was a surgeon in London. And Mum’s sister was a physiotherapist. So she was very well paid and was way ahead of her time. And so was my grandmother. I come from a line of very powerful women.”

Raised in this way, it’s little wonder that Goodall decided when she was just 10 that she wanted to go to Africa and live with wild animals. While this proclamation was met with laughter from those around her, Goodall’s mother was encouraging. “She said, ‘If you really want something like this, you’re going to have to work awfully hard. Take advantage of every opportunity. And then, maybe, if you don’t give up you’ll find a way.”’

Jane Goodall with her mentor Louis Leakey

After school, there was no money for her to go to university; just enough to pay for a secretarial course. But then she got a letter from a friend, inviting her to stay in Kenya. After paying for her boat passage with a job waiting tables – “in a hotel just round the corner” – she made it to Kenya.

That’s when she first heard the name ‘Dr Louis Leakey’. The famed paleoanthropologist and museum curator took an interest in Goodall when they met. “He asked me zillions of questions and because I’d read everything I could find about African animals, I think he was impressed. I wasn’t seeking a job, I was just seeking advice.

But, strangely, his secretary had left unexpectedly two days before I went to see him.” It was fate, it seems. By the time Leakey and his wife took Goodall on an expedition to the Serengeti plains – “there wasn’t even a road across it then” – she felt utterly at home. “That’s when I felt, ‘This is where I belong.’”

Leakey put Goodall forward to study chimpanzees; she arrived in Gombe armed with just binoculars, a notepad and boundless enthusiasm. “Although I loved it, the chimps ran away as soon as they saw me. Very conservative. It took four months before one of them began to lose his fear.”

Goodall’s observations of David Greybeard and his companion, Goliath, using their tools to fish for termites, changed everything. By 1963, Goodall was on the cover of National Geographic magazine and, two years later, her work was chronicled in a documentary, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees.

She has remained closely associated with the company ever since, with National Geographic recently focusing on her life’s work with the inspirational account, Jane Goodall: The Hope.

When she set up the Jane Goodall Institute 43 years ago, the plan was to not just continue her chimpanzee research, but broaden out into other areas. “I was thoroughly told off about my goals, because I was told that I should be focusing and that I couldn’t do everything. And that the Institute should focus, it couldn’t do everything: conservation, research, welfare and education. That wasn’t possible, I was told. But, in fact, that’s what we do. And that’s actually why we are becoming increasingly successful; because we’ve got something for everyone.”

From naturalist to activist

Her move towards activism came in 1986, after she attended the ‘Understanding Chimpanzees’ conference in Chicago. “I went to the conference as a scientist, a naturalist, writing books as well. And I left as an activist. I didn’t make the decision. I always compare it with Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. He started off as one person and he ended up another.”

From that moment on, she changed her focus towards animal conservation. “The rest of it evolved gradually. But the change came – boom! – like that.”

Eloquent and passionate in equal measure, Goodall seems tailor-made for this sort of work, but it wasn’t always the case. “The first speech I had to give, I was absolutely terrified,” she admits. “I felt that I couldn’t breathe for the first 10 minutes, but it can’t have been like that because nobody noticed. And during that first lecture, I realised I could do it.” Practising at home, she made a vow about her presentational style. “One, I will never read a speech; two, I will not say ‘um’ and ‘er’. And I seldom do.”

Dr. Jane Goodall scans the tree tops for looking for chimpanzees in Gombe National Park on July 14, 2010, the 50th anniversary o fher arrival at Gombe.

Writing books for adults and children alike, as well as her numerous public appearances, her reputation has swelled to iconic status. In 2004, she was named a UN Messenger of Peace by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, thanks to her work with Roots & Shoots. That same year, she was made a Dame. But it’s about more than that; as one interviewee notes in Jane Goodall: The Hope, it’s “all these young people looking at her like she’s a deity”.

Goodall clearly feeds off the enthusiasm she engenders. “I tell them what my mother said to me, ‘If you really want something, you must go for it,’” she says. “I wish Mum was alive to know how many, many, many, many people have said, ‘Jane, I want to thank you. You taught me that because you did it, I can do it too.’ That’s a wonderful legacy that my mother left. One of the legacies. Thoroughly remarkable.”

She glances around for a missing photo on her shelf, before finding a framed picture and presenting it to me. “Oh, here she is, here’s Mum.” Our time is almost up – and the internet connection is unstable – but Goodall is, as ever, on message. “Every single day, all of us, we make an impact on the planet,” she says. “And we can choose the kind of impact we make.”

Even the simplest of purchases can make a difference, she reminds me. “Did it harm the environment when it was made? Did it lead to cruelty to animals? Is it cheap because of child slave labour?” With that, she’s gone – back to her packed schedule and to the millions she has inspired.

For more on Jane Goodall’s work, visit janegoodall.org

Photography: Jane Goodall, Anna Mosser / Jane Goodall Institute; National Geographic

Story originally published in September 2020.

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