A chat with chimpanzee expert, Jane GoodallBy CLARA CHOW
MOMENTS after meeting renowned British chimpanzee expert Dr Jane Goodall, she introduces her furry, stuffed companion.
“Meet Mr H,” she says with a soft smile, proffering a grey monkey soft toy.
You feel an inexplicable urge to shake its hand but take her small, lined one instead.
A blind magician named Gary Horn gave her Mr H seven years ago for her birthday, thinking it was a chimpanzee (he is the wrong colour and has a tail; chimps don’t, she explains).
At 70, Dr Goodall is still a source of inspiration around the world, travelling 300 days a year to give lectures and raise awareness on wildlife causes.
Since the 1960s, she has won fame and respect as one of the “trimates” – three women sent by legendary Kenya-born British paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey to live in jungles to study apes.
The other two were Canadian Birute Galdikas, who went to Indonesian Borneo to observe orang utans, and American Dian Fossey, who worked with gorillas in Zaire and Rwanda. Currently, Galdikas continues her research in Borneo. Fossey was murdered in Rwanda in 1985.
In Singapore last week on a five-day visit for the Biology In Asia International Conference, Dr Goodall also found time to attend a meet-the-students session, have an orchid named after her (spathoglottis Jane Goodall, a yellow-and-purple bloom) and visit the Singapore Zoo.
During the interview at the Royal Plaza hotel in Scotts Road last Monday, the primatologist exudes quiet, kindly authority. Dressed in a green turtleneck sweater which matches her blue-green eyes, the slim and delicate woman still retains much of her ethereal beauty.
As a young woman in the photographs of her ex-husband, wildlife photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick, she emerged like a dew-slicked waif in the forest.
But she modestly says: “I never thought I was beautiful ever.”
There is no dispute over her staunch championing of her pet causes.
Discussing the dwindling population of chimpanzees – there are fewer than 150,000 left across Africa, threatened by the illegal bushmeat trade – she muses ruefully: “Maybe you have to blame people like me. Maybe we haven’t found the right way of helping people to understand.”
That said, she has helped to mobilise governments, organisations and logging companies against this illegal trade. But broach how much it costs to save the chimpanzees, and she stops you firmly: “I couldn’t possibly put a sum of money on it. Expensive though it is to care for orphaned chimpanzees, none of the Africans who comes to look at them goes away unchanged. Many say I’ll never eat another chimpanzee again.”
She closes her eyes to summon up mental images of chimpanzees which have left deep impressions on her.
Shaman-like, she chants: “David Greybeard, who was the first to lose his fear. Flo, the mother who taught me so much about mothering. Fifi her daughter ... and Gremlin, my favourite living chimpanzee, mother of twins ...”
She founded the Jane Goodall Institute – a non-profit organisation for wildlife research, education and conservation based in Washington DC – in 1977. It now runs four chimpanzee sanctuaries in Congo and Uganda, housing over 150 chimpanzees.
She also started the Tacare project in 1994 to support sustainable livelihoods in 33 Tanzanian villages. Last year, the institute spent US$6.2mil (RM23.56mil) on various programmes.
Ask how Asia’s track record in wildlife conservation compares to the West, and she says: “Eastern philosophy is very much in tune with nature. But consumerism has come rushing over from the US, so that sensitivity to nature has been over-ridden and destroyed.”
Then, she tells you wearily about the moon bears in China, kept in cages and milked with catheters for their bile. She says with a sigh: “This, for some kind of unproven, crummy medicine.”
As a child, London-born Goodall, who grew up in the English coastal town of Bournemouth, would wait for hours in the family’s hen-house to observe a chicken laying an egg.
She shared an extraordinary bond with her mother, writer Vanne Goodall, up until her death three years ago at age 95.
She trained as a secretary but realised it was not the job for her. In 1957, a friend invited her to visit Kenya where she met Leakey. Impressed by her patience and desire to understand animals, he chose her for the mission to understand chimpanzees. Thus, at age 26, she arrived in Gombe, Tanzania in search of its chimpanzee population.
Faced with the African area’s steep valleys and thick forests, she wondered: How am I going to find the chimpanzees, let alone learn anything about them?
“It seemed daunting,” she recalls now.
With enough money for six months of research, she knew she had to produce results or “let my mentor Louis down.”
Fortunately, she eventually found the chimpanzees and observed them fashioning tools out of twigs. It was revolutionary, flying in the face of scientists’ belief then that humans were the only species capable of making tools.
It took four months before the chimpanzees would let her come near them.
Goodall and Leakey realised that she had to get a degree to put her observations in context in order to gain acceptance among scientists.
She acquired her doctorate in ethology – the study of animal behaviour – from Cambridge in 1965. At Cambridge, she was greeted with hostility and was criticised for daring to give the chimpanzees names instead of numbers, and talking about them as having personalities.
Nevertheless, her days in the university taught her to analyse and present the information “without compromising what I knew was right; in a way that I knew would make it harder for my opponents to tear me to pieces.”
After graduation, she returned to Tanzania, where she discovered that chimpanzees engaged in primitive and brutal warfare.
In 1984, she received the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize for her work. Two years later, she decided to leave her beloved Gombe and her research to campaign on environmental issues. Her work is continued by the institute’s team.
Her son Hugo – affectionately known as “Grub” – is 38 and married to a Tanzanian. He is considering going into the safari business, which means that mother and son could work together in the sense that she could help him find clients.
A grandmother of three – Merlin, 12, Angel, 10, and Nick, five – she shows no signs of slowing down. These days, she divides her free time between Bournemouth and Tanzania.
She founded a global programme for youth, called Roots And Shoots, 13 years ago, starting with 18 high-school students meeting on her verandah in Tanzania.
It is this that she wishes to leave behind as part of her legacy. To date, there are more than 6,000 Roots And Shoots groups in 88 countries, including Singapore. More importantly, she hopes to help people understand the true nature of animals – “to realise that we’re not the only beings with thoughts and feelings.”
She has watched and approves of the 1988 film Gorillas In The Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver, which was based on Fossey’s life. But she is dead-set against allowing a movie based on her life to be made just yet.
With spritely defiance, she jokes: “When I’m 90, I will sit on the set and say: ‘No, no, my dear, I didn’t say it like that.’ And I’ll drive them all nuts.” – The Straits Times Singapore / Asia News Network