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The head and heart must work in harmony: A chat with Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall on ‘virtual Jane’, community-centred conservation, and the future

By Jennifer Anandanayagam

Activists, fighters, advocates, or campaigners – whatever the term – come in different shapes and sizes, but it is quite rare to see one that is graceful and loving in their approach. When in 1960, the 26-year-old Jane Goodall went to Tanzania to live with and study chimpanzees, she said in a 2010 CBS interview that she was naive, shy, determined, and “always slightly startled that things were working out”.

The woman we see today, the 87-year-old Dr. Jane Goodall, is hopeful more than anything else, and still determined. She is hopeful about the change we can ignite in the future generation, and she is hopeful about what we can all do if we feel empowered. Change comes from within, and this is something Dr. Goodall ardently believes in. Reiterating the need for positive stories in the media which she thinks can empower people to make their individual contributions towards humans, wildlife, and the environment, it is safe to say Dr. Goodall is a different kind of fighter. In the year 2020 – with the Covid-19 pandemic – what Dr. Goodall calls “virtual Jane” was born. In her podcast titled The Hopecast: Jane Goodall's Podcast which she launched last year with a series of other virtual projects, she shares that she believes in the indomitable human spirit. “The more that these things impinge upon me and make me angry, I think the anger manages to push aside the depression because I suppose I was born a fighter, but a fighter in a rather different way from getting out there and being aggressive because I don't think that works. You’ve just got to be calm and tell stories and try and get people to change from within.”

Causing quite the stir in the scientific community at the time, Dr. Goodall’s study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees revealed that many traits that were up until then thought of as exclusively human were in fact shared by chimpanzees as well. In the CBS interview with Lara Logan for “60 Minutes”, Dr. Goodall is heard saying: “People say to me, ‘thank you for giving them characters and personality.’ I say: ‘I didn’t give them anything. I merely translated them for people.’”

The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), founded by Dr. Goodall in 1977, takes a community-centred approach to conservation based on her belief that everything is connected. Roots & Shoots was founded in 1991, with the goal of bringing together youths from preschool to university age to work on environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues.

Sri Lanka was lucky enough to witness Dr. Goodall’s talk at the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS) and Nations Trust’s Public Lecture which happened on 17 June via Zoom and Facebook. We managed to catch up with Dr. Goodall well ahead of the lecture. Following are the excerpts from the interview.

Dr. Jane Goodall Photo (c) Roy Borghouts

Tell us about your podcast “Hopecast”. How did this come about?

Hopecast was the idea of our head of communications at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), US. I have greatly enjoyed these podcasts – talking to so many wonderful people. And it is now among the top 10% watched podcasts in the world, and an episode is downloaded by over 1,000 people every day.

What’s the Jane Goodall Institute involved in now? Any future research projects in the pipeline?

There are 30 JGIs around the world – each one is an NGO registered in its own country, but JGI Global works to ensure that all stay on mission and that they do not take money from companies with a bad environmental record. Every JGI has Roots & Shoots as a “must do” programme – they develop groups in their country and they work on projects suitable for the country; i.e. in Asia, there are projects to protect orangutans, elephants, and so on in Asian forests. Our overall goal is to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment, and projects are determined by the situation in the different countries.

We shall continue the research at Gombe, and fund and operate two sanctuaries for orphan chimpanzees in the Congo and South Africa. Our conservation programmes in Africa all involve the local communities. If we do not help people to find ways of making a livelihood without destroying their environment through necessity, we cannot conserve chimps, elephants, forests, or anything else.

How has the pandemic affected your work in conservation?

The JGI programmes in Africa have all carried on. JGI did not lose funding sources so far. I was at first frustrated when I could not travel and give talks and meet people (I was travelling 300 days a year before the pandemic). But then we created “virtual Jane” and from my home here in the UK (where I grew up), with Zoom conferences, virtual lectures, meetings, podcasts, webinars, and video messages, I have reached millions more people in many more countries.

What got you interested in studying primates in the first place and how did you decide that this was where you wanted to focus your energy?

I was born loving, and being fascinated by, animals. Back in the 1940s, TV had not been invented. I learned by watching the squirrels, birds, and insects around our house in the South of England. And I learned from books; always books about animals. We had very little money.

When I was 10, I found a little second-hand book I could just afford – Tarzan of the Apes. That’s when I decided I would grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them. I never thought of being a scientist and I had no aspirations to study primates.

After I saved up and got to Kenya (for a holiday with a school friend), I heard about and met the famous paleontologist Louis Leakey. I think he was impressed by how much I knew about animals. Anyway, it was he who asked me if I would go and study chimpanzees – something no one had done.

Your fondest memory from your childhood?

Roaming around the cliffs above the sea with my dog, Rusty. And spending time up my favourite tree in the garden, a beech tree.

Over your 60-year career studying and working with chimpanzees, what would you say is your biggest lesson learnt from observing them?

It was significant to find out how similar we are to chimpanzees, our closest relatives. So much non-verbal communication is the same – kissing, embracing, patting, all signifying friendship, reassurance; swaggering, raising the fist, throwing rocks as missiles in aggression.

We share 98.6% of the structure of our DNA with them. But they also helped me understand ways in which we are different, mainly in the explosive development of our intellect. Other animals are way more intelligent than people used to think, but after we developed a language using words, we were able to tell people about things and events not present, bring people with different skill sets together to try to solve problems, and plan for the distant future.

Dr. Jane Goodall at Gombe National Park Photo (c) Michael Neugebauer

Your fondest memory of when you lived with chimpanzees?

When old female Flo trusted me so much that she let her five-month old infant Flint approach and, with those large dark eyes, look up and reach to touch my nose. Flo was a bit worried – she kept her hand round him – but she let him come. He was just learning to walk. But I should add that one of the most wonderful things was just being out with the chimps in the rainforest, watching them, always seeing something new, absorbing the wonder of nature.

What was your experience like of World War II?

I’m glad I grew up in the war, as I learned not to take anything for granted. Everything was rationed. Some bombs fell very close; we had to go and crowd into the steel “cage” air raid shelter issued to people with children along with gas masks. It was very small, and there was my grandmother (it was her house), mum, my sister, and I (we came here at the start of the war when my father joined the army), mum’s two sisters, and the woman we had to give a room to as everyone was asked to do if they could. It was a squash in there! You couldn’t stand or even kneel in there. We had mattresses on the floor.

What do you think are the fundamental problems/challenges governing bodies in countries have/face when it comes to conservation?

It varies a bit depending on the country. The big problem is the absurd idea that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources and growing populations of humans and livestock; competition between people and the natural world; poverty – the rural poor will cut down trees to make space to grow food for their families, or to make money from charcoal; corruption; balancing the need for conservation – we depend on the natural world for clean air, water, food, and so much more – with the demand of people for more food, houses, and in the rich countries, more and more infrastructure to cater to the unsustainable lifestyles demanded by the well-to-do.

We have to counteract the absurd notion that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources and a growing population. Already, we are using up nature’s gifts in some places faster than nature can replenish them.

Do you think younger generations have the right amount of empathy and passion to consider their greater environment and how their choices affect it?

I began a programme, Roots & Shoots, in 1991. It started with 12 students from eight secondary schools. The main message is “every individual makes a difference every day. And we can choose what sort of difference we make”. Today, it is in 68 countries and growing, with members in kindergarten, university, and everything in between. Each group chooses three projects – one to help people, one to help animals, one to help the environment. The projects they choose are relevant to the environment, culture, religion, and so on of the country where they live, and the age of the members. As you read these words there are passionate young people who care about the environment and understand the threats of climate change and loss of biodiversity, taking action to do something about it. More and more young people are rising to the challenge. There are many other environmental groups but R&S members understand the connection between the various problems we face which is why, as a whole, they tackle the three projects.

How important is the role of parents/families and close guardians when it comes to inculcating values of compassion for animals in kids?

My family was very, very important to my development. My mother supported her 10-year-old’s dream when everyone else laughed at me. How would I get to Africa? We had little money, no one was doing that, and I was just a girl. Some families unfortunately are anything but supportive. Sometimes schools or social services try to assume the role of family or guardian. The important thing is for a young child to be able to rely on the support of two or three adults who are consistently there to help.

The times of social media mean a lot of social media activism. What are your thoughts on this?

By and large too many children are spending far too long on social media, video games, TV, etc. It is desperately important that children connect with nature and learn to understand and love it, for you want to protect what you love. However, used wisely, social media enables us to make a huge difference. You can send a message to thousands of people with just a few taps on a keyboard.

How do you think social media and all of the new technologies that are constantly reinventing themselves can be used for conservation?

As above. Also, new technology like Global Positioning System (GPS), Geographic Information System (GIS), satellite imagery, drones, and camera traps, are all the backbone of conservation when used in combination with people on the ground.

Humans and primates often come into conflict, especially in settings with towns and villages close to forests and other primate habitats. How would you recommend humans approach primates when they come into contact with them in such situations?

Most important is don’t feed them. Don’t carry food that can be seen or smelled. Don’t make eye contact. The problem is some primates have been fed, have no fear of people, and if they try to snatch a bag or something and the human hangs onto it, they may become aggressive.

What are the most pressing challenges facing primates today in terms of conservation? How can we fix them?

Almost everywhere primates are losing habitat as forests are cleared for agriculture or development. In some places it is hunting – thousands of monkeys are shot for food in Africa and other countries with rainforests. They are also captured to sell as pets; the worst thing you can do is buy a young monkey. They may be cute as infants, but they will quickly grow and become potentially dangerous. So don’t support this horrible trade. We have to help local communities to make their living without destroying their environment.

As a United Nations (UN) Messenger of Peace, what would you say the most important thing is for humans to remember when dealing with animals?

Be respectful and quiet. Allow the animal to take the initiative (here I’m thinking of domestic animals). Realise that you are interacting with an individual with a personality, a mind capable of solving problems, and an animal who can feel fear, happiness, anger, grief, and so on. And pain. Some animals are amazingly intelligent – the great apes, some monkeys, elephants, crows, and parrots. Oh, and pigs too.

Your organisation Roots & Hoots is about communities making a difference. What is your strongest example of communities successfully making a difference with conservation?

A group of primary school children heard that Perrier water was planning an extraction plant up where the pure water bubbled from the ground. They interviewed environmentalists and also people who would make money from the plant in different parts of the river. They concluded it would be very harmful. It was such a good study that the Environment Protection Agency conducted their own study and the plan for the factory was scrapped.

There was a lot of blame and finger-pointing when Covid-19 first surfaced, most alluding to man’s disregard for his environment and wildlife. What is your take on this?

There is no doubt that we brought this pandemic on ourselves by our disrespect of nature and animals. We invade their habitats, forcing many into closer contact with people. We hunt, kill, and capture and traffic wild animals around the globe to sell in wildlife markets as food, medicine, and exotic pets. In other words, we create conditions that make it relatively easy for a pathogen to spillover from an animal to a person. If it then bonds with a cell in a human body, it may create a new so-called zoonotic disease – such as Covid-19. The intensive animal farming where billions of animals are crammed into what we call “factory farms” is also responsible for a number of zoonotic diseases.

Three words that describe you best?

Determined, patient, resourceful.


Concluding our chat, Dr. Goodall was eager to leave one last message with anyone reading this article. “Remember, you make some impact on the planet every day. Choose wisely, thinking of how your choice may affect future generations and ensuring that head and heart work in harmony.”

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