Few primatologists can claim to have reached rock star status, but through her work in the fields of science and animal conservation, Dr Jane Goodall has influenced everyone from Angelina Jolie to Prince Charles.
Having spent 45 years studying chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, Goodall is responsible for revolutionising our understanding of our closest primate relatives.
“It took months working as a waitress to save up enough money for the boat fare,” recalls Goodall. “And when I finally got to Gombe, the chimpanzees ran away every time they saw me. It was a long time (three months) before they began to accept me.”
Admitted into Cambridge University as a PhD candidate despite no previous university studies, Goodall, a UN Messenger of Peace, was criticised by her peers for her unconventional techniques – she would name the chimps rather than numbering them and attributed the Pan troglodytes with having human emotions and minds.
“Fortunately, my childhood teacher, my dog Rusty, had taught me the professors were wrong,” she quips.
It was Goodall who showed us that chimps, too, experience adolescence, form powerful mother and child bonds, and forge political alliances to climb up the ranks.
“I found there are good mothers and bad mothers, just as in human society,” she says. “It was a shock to find that chimpanzees, like us, have a dark side and are capable of violence and brutality, even a kind of primitive war between neighbouring communities.”
Eventually, National Geographic sponsored her work and sent Goodall’s photographer, filmmaker – and her future husband – Hugo van Lawick to document her life in Gombe.
While in Africa, she was also confronted with the dramatic decline in chimpanzee numbers due to human population growth, habitat destruction and commercial hunting of all wild animals for bushmeat.
But in 1975, Goodall’s work in Gombe reached a roadblock when four of her students were kidnapped and funding was withdrawn from the project.
“Eventually, the quarter million pound ransom was paid,” she says. “But for the next several years, Gombe was deemed no longer safe for foreign students. That’s when some friends in California started the Jane Goodall Institute so that I could raise money for research.”
Since a life-changing conference in Chicago in 1986 – “I arrived at that conference as a scientist, leading the life I had dreamed of as a child: I left as an activist,” she recalls – the conservationist has been on the road some 300 days a year, furthering her own research while spurring people into action by publicising “the mess we have made of our planet”.
Goodall’s interests extend from the animal kingdom to the wider state of the planet. She lists an “unsustainable” Western lifestyle, a growing hunger for meat and the “divorce” between nature and society as the biggest threats to the environment today.
With this in mind, Goodall launched Roots & Shoots, an education programme for young people, in 1991.
Of the throngs of celebrities who call her a friend, Goodall exalts the efforts of a select, special few.
“Those I know best who are speaking out for various conservation and social causes are Pierce and Keely Brosnan, Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas and Dave Matthews. Prince Charles and Prince William are pushing to protect forests also, along with Hillary Clinton to stop the slaughter of elephants for their ivory.”
Dr Jane Goodall arrives in Australia on May 30 for a string of live shows, events and leadership seminars. For more details visit mindfood.com.