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Jane Goodall: 5 reasons to have hope for the planet

suJane Goodall with Freud.
Dr. Jane Goodall with Freud, a chimpanzee from Gombe. Photograph © Michael Neugebauer

Jane Goodall is not only arguably the most famous conservationist who ever lived, but also the most well-known and respected female scientist on the planet today.

Her path to reach that stature is as unlikely as it is inspiring. Told to “never give up” by her mother, Goodall set out in her 20s to pursue her childhood dream: to live with animals in Africa. By the time she was 26 she was doing just this. Hand-picked by renowned anthropologist, Louis Leakey, she was sent to Gombe, Tanzania to conduct the first long-term behavior study of wild chimps. Without even a college degree, Goodall became the only person ever to be accepted into a chimpanzee group. Her work yielded profound — and controversial — insights on our closest relatives, including the discovery that humans were not the only tool users, eventually contributing to a broader scientific movement to identify and document “culture” within other species. Goodall began to win the first of her many accolades.

While many biologists would be content with publishing a widely cited body of work, garnering an impressive list of awards, and changing how we view our world and ourselves, “Dr. Jane” went well beyond that, moving from research to advocacy. The realization that chimps could go extinct in the wild led her to devote herself to an arguably even more challenging endeavor: conservation. She refused to let the world lose what she had grown to love.

Realizing that outreach meant more than blind appeals to the masses, Goodall reached out to younger generations. In 1991 she launched Roots and Shoots, an environmental education and service platform that today has more than 150,000 members in over 130 countries. Meanwhile the Jane Goodall Institute, her research and conservation organization, has also expanded beyond its original mission and now has operations in 29 countries.

In the course of more than five decades of working with wildlife, Goodall has witnessed great change in the field of conservation and has become a keen observer of what is and isn’t working.

At the top of her list are the pitched battles conservationists are prone to fighting with each other over money, egos, and tactics. She says conservationists would do better working together to address pressing threats to wildlife and habitats rather than devoting scarce resources to infighting.

“I always wish that there could be more partnerships, sharing of resources,” she told “Unfortunately, the competition for funding means that many organizations are wary of such partnerships. Even worse is when egos get in the way.”

She cites approaches that exclude local people as an example of conservation that usually falters.

“Conservation programs that cordon off a piece of the natural world with no attempt to involve the people living around its boundaries are unlikely to succeed, at least not in the developing world where so many of these people are living in poverty.”

Bridging these gaps and working together will be critical if humanity is to overcome daunting environmental challenges ahead. But Goodall is hopeful—citing five reasons (see below).

“The news is, indeed, grim. Which is why so many people feel helpless and hopeless. And feeling thus, do nothing,” said Goodall. “It is true that, if change does not come about, then we may as well give up. But I firmly believe there is still time – though it is fast running out.”

[Disclosure: Goodall joined the Mongabay advisory board last month].

Jane Goodall. Courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute.

AN INTERVIEW WITH JANE GOODALL What qualities do you think Louis Leakey saw in you to give you such a life-changing opportunity of studying chimpanzees in the wild?

Jane Goodall: Initially he was impressed I had saved up to get to Africa. He was impressed by how much I knew about animals in Africa – from reading, and spending hours in the Natural History Museum in London. And, I suppose, by my enthusiasm and sincerity. Because of that he invited me on the tiny expedition to Olduvai Gorge, at that time, utterly remote, with no roads or tracks leading there. And once there, he was impressed because it seemed that, instinctively, I knew how to behave in the wild, I felt at home. I was not afraid when I met a rhino one evening when I was walking on the plains with the other young English girl on the expedition. And it was the same when, on another evening, we met a young male lion who followed us for quite some way. He was simply curious.

The above qualities were nurtured by my mother. She always said if I wanted to do something, I would have to work hard, take advantage of opportunity, never give up. Everyone else laughed at my childhood dream of going to Africa to live with animals. It began when I was eight years old and read how Doctor Doolittle took circus animals back to Africa. It got a boost in 1944 when I read Tarzan of the Apes. I was 10 years old. We had no money. Africa was referred to as the “Dark Continent.” There were no planes with tourists going back and forth. World War II was raging. And I was a mere girl. That was 1944.

But my mother said to me “If you really want something you will have to work really hard, take advantage of opportunities – and never give up.”

There was no money for me to go to university; just enough for secretarial training. Mum said then perhaps I could get a job in Africa. I got a job first in Oxford, where I could experience the fun of university life without the work! My next job was in London with documentary films. Then a letter from school friend arrived, inviting me to Kenya, where her parents had just bought a farm. I went home and worked as waitress in a hotel around the corner. It took months, but I saved up enough money for a return trip to Africa – by boat. I was 23. Not done in those days, girls going off to Africa. My mother was considered irresponsible!!! Thank God she did not listen!

African rainforest. Photo by Rhett Butler Many of your recent books focus on the theme of hope. Given the dire environmental news coming out daily and the tremendous challenges facing humanity, what makes you hopeful for our future?

Jane Goodall: The news is, indeed, grim. Which is why so many people feel helpless and hopeless. And feeling thus, do nothing. It is true that, if change does not come about, then we may as well give up. But I firmly believe there is still time – though it is fast running out. My reasons for hope are simple:

1. The energy, commitment, and hard work of young people once they understand the problems and are empowered to discuss and ACT upon solutions. Which is why I devote so much time to developing our youth program, Roots & Shoots. This is for young people from pre-school through University. Roots and Shoots is now in 137 countries. Each group chooses three projects: to improve things for people, other animals, and the environment. With a theme running through: let’s learn to live in peace and harmony with each other – with other religions, cultures, and nations. Between young and old, rich and poor, native and immigrant. And let us learn to live in better harmony with nature. There are about 150,000 members around the world and they are truly making a difference. They choose the projects they are passionate about, roll up their sleeves, and take action. And so many adults, who have been Roots and Shoots members, remain committed for life.

Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants

2. The human brain. The biggest difference (in my opinion) between us and our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees, is the human brain. Chimpanzees are much more intelligent than was once thought. But even the brightest chimpanzee brain cannot equal the brain of a creature who designed a rocket from which crept a robot that is still crawling around on Mars taking photos for scientists on Earth to study. So the question is: how is it possible that the most intellectual creature to ever walk Planet Earth is destroying its only home? (The photos from Mars make it clear that we can find no suitable home there!) Have we perhaps lost wisdom? When we make a major decision we tend to ask: “How will this benefit me now? Or the next shareholders’s meeting 3 months ahead? Or my next political campaign?” When we should be asking how the decision will affect future generations.

But we are coming to our senses. Already, around the world, innovative solutions are being developed to many of the problems we have created, e.g. renewable energy, sustainable farming, and so on. And, as individuals, leaving lighter ecological footprints.

3. The resilience of nature. In the early 1990s the environment around the tiny 30 square miles of Gombe National Park, once part of contiguous forest cover stretching along the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika, had been reduced to bare hills. There were more people living there than the land could support, too poor to buy food from elsewhere. Over farmed soil had lost its fertility. As I looked down from a small plane I asked myself “How can we even try to save Gombe’s famous chimpanzees when people living around are struggling to survive?” This led to our TACARE (TakeCare) program to improve the lives of the villagers in a holistic way. The most important aspect was that we asked the villagers how they felt we could best help them, and we provided the know-how – i.e. the fish hooks rather than the fish. A key component was micro-credit for groups of mostly women based on the Grameen Bank, loaning money for environmentally sustainable projects, and providing family planning information. We started with 12 villages on the park boundary. It has been so successful, we now operate in 52 villages. And the tree cover is returning, remaining forests are being protected, villagers are taught to use Google Earth tablets to monitor the health of the returning or remaining forests. And they agreed to set village land aside as a buffer around the tiny Gombe park. The chimpanzees have three times more forest today than they did 10 years ago. And other villages are setting aside land to form a corridor that will link the previously isolated Gombe chimpanzees to other remnant groups.

Gombe Street View, a joint effort between Google Maps, Google Earth Outreach (GEO), Tanzania National Parks, and the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), was launched last month to highlight conservation efforts in Gombe Stream National Park as Google did when mapping streets around the world. This Gombe Street View image shows a mother and juvenile eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) walking along a trail in Gombe. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

And animals on the brink of extinction can be given another chance. I give many inspiring examples in Hope for Animals and their World. My favorite is that of the Black Robin of New Zealand – at one point only seven birds remained, and only one fertile female. She and her mate became famous. There are now more than 500 black robins – all genetically the same but living on four different islands. Hopefully, over time, there will be genetic drift.

4. The indomitable human spirit – the people who tackle seemingly impossible tasks and won’t give up. One such was Don Merton, who saved the black robin, though he was told he was wasting his time. Some are iconic figures – like Nelson Mandela who emerged from 17 years of hard physical labor (21 years in prison) with the amazing capacity of forgiveness so that he led his nation out of the evil regime of apartheid without the bloodbath most people had predicted. In fact we find this indomitable human spirit all round, if we bother to look. And it is very inspiring.

5. My most recent reason for hope is the power of social media. For example, the organizers of the recent climate march in New York expected maybe 100,000. But everyone tweeted and twittered and posted news of it on Facebook, urging their friends and colleagues to join. And there were closer to 400,000 (actually more were joining but the police closed it down). I was one of them!

Wild chimp in Uganda. Photo by Rhett Butler. Mongabay: You have argued for a long time that animals are sentient beings. Will you tell us what this means and what are the ethical implications?

Jane Goodall: When I had been studying chimpanzees for just over a year, Louis Leakey told me he had got me a place in Cambridge University to do a PhD (even though I had never been to college). Imagine my horror when I was told I could not talk about animal personality, mind or emotion. These qualities were unique to the human animal I was told(some scientists even reprimanded me for giving the chimpanzees names, rather than numbers). Of course, I knew these erudite scientists were wrong (and I doubt most of them believed what they said was true). You cannot spend time with chimpanzees and not recognize their distinct personalities. You cannot watch the response of a mother to her dead infant and not recognize her grief. You cannot see youngsters playing, and not sense their joy. And emotions of anger, frustration, jealousy, pleasure, sadness and so on are equally obvious. But I had learned that animals indeed have personalities and emotions long before I studied the chimpanzees – from my dog, Rusty. You cannot spend meaningful time with any animal such as dog, cat, horse, rabbit, pig and not know that this is true. The problem was simply that science had not discovered ways to analyze such things.

For a long time we humans were defined as “Man, the toolmaker” – the only creature with this ability. And then I saw David Greybeard (the first chimpanzee to lose his fear of me), not only using grass stems to fish for termites from their underground nests, but also carefully stripping leaves from a twig to make a tool for the purpose. One day I watched a chimpanzee quietly resting, stretched out in the sunlight. He sat up, looked all round, wandered over to a tuft of tall grasses, very carefully selected three or four, then set off determinedly to fish termites at a nest that was quite out of sight in the forest and about 100 meters away. Clear example of planning ahead. I have hundreds of similar examples.

Once we are prepared to admit that animals have personalities, minds capable of thinking and above all emotions, then we will have sleepless nights as we think of the pain and suffering (sometimes mental as well as physical) that we inflict on millions of animals as a matter of course. Intensive farming, abattoirs, sports hunting, trapping, animals in entertainment, treatment of “pets,” fishing – the list goes on and on. It is why I became a vegetarian. It is why I encourage and try to help all those working to alleviate the pain and suffering of animals around the world.

Jane Goddall. Photo © CBS/Landov. What successes have you achieved that you could not have dreamt of in conservation?

Jane Goodall: What started with just me in the field, developed into a field research station. The first Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) was incorporated in America in 1977, for the conservation of chimpanzees (and other primates) – which of course included protection of the forests. And, from the start, its mission was also to care for captive chimpanzees, and to educate people about the importance of our mission. I could not have imagined that the number of JGIs around the world would multiply – today there are 29 countries with JGIs – in Africa, America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East – all sharing the same mission.

As I flew over the tiny Gombe National Park in 1990 I was horrified to see bare hills where there had been thick forest. And so TACARE was born. Similar programs are now operated by JGIs in Uganda, DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, and Senegal. And in all cases these programs are designed to help people and to create local partners to conserve and protect the environment and the species that live there. I could never have dreamt of such programs when I began (in fact they were not necessary in 1960 as the forests where chimpanzees lived stretched across central Africa – the Equatorial Forest Belt it was called).

Nor could I have imagined, back then, that a program for young people, started by me, would grow around the world, as has Root & Shoots. And of course, a major part of Roots and Shoots is protecting and restoring the environment, and working to help animals. Looking at the flip side, what hasn’t worked in conservation?

Jane Goodall: Conservation programs that cordon off a piece of the natural world with no attempt to involve the people living around its boundaries are unlikely to succeed, at least not in the developing world where so many of these people are living in poverty.

Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Dr. Jane Goodall and members of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots plant trees in Singapore. © Chris Dickinson What do you see as the biggest gap or opportunity in conservation?

Jane Goodall: I always wish that there could be more partnerships, sharing of resources. JGI tries to partner with as many programs as possible. Unfortunately, the competition for funding means that many organizations are wary of such partnerships. Even worse is when egos get in the way. Are you especially excited about any new ideas, innovations, or technology emerging in conservation?

Jane Goodall: JGI has forged partnerships with Esri, Google Earth, Digital Globe, and NASA. Dr. Lilian Pintea of JGI has established these links, and through them we have state-of-the-art mapping abilities so that local people can see exactly what we mean when we talk about habitat restoration, and how the protection of the watershed can benefit their villages into the future as well as benefiting wildlife. Google Earth has provided tablets, charged with solar power. Forest monitors, volunteers from the villages, are trained in their use. They have listed everything they feel should and should not be happening, and the tablets are designed to allow them to record all this.

As more forest monitors are trained, by JGI and other conservation groups, this information can now be fed into Global Forest Watch. Soon this will give a clearer picture of what is going on in the forests around the world.

Today the DNA of a chimpanzee (or other animals of course) can be determined by analyzing a fecal sample. Once we had the DNA profiles for all the Gombe chimpanzees we were, for the first time, able to determine who are the fathers of different infants. And if a chimpanzee unknown to us is seen, the DNA analysis will determine whether it is quite unrelated to any Gombe chimpanzee and thus prove the effectiveness of our corridors.


This month, from November 17-23, The Thin Green Line Foundation has launched a brand new awareness campaign to Go Green for Rangers. In the video message below, Dr. Jane Goodall supports Sean Willmore and the Thin Green Line Foundation in their efforts to protect and support our world’s rangers.

Camera traps are helping many conservationists working with shy animals, or wishing to collect information without disturbing animals.Drones also offer opportunities for surveys, and especially for combating poaching.Social media can now be seen as a powerful tool to bring people together to join a campaign, to raise voices or money, and to raise awareness.

Involving youth is not exactly a new idea, but it is growing and is immensely powerful. Just yesterday I received a check for $150 raised by an 8-year-old little girl to help us look after the orphan chimpanzees in our big Tchimpounga sanctuary. She regularly raises money by selling homemade lemonade. There are literally thousands of young people raising money, raising awareness – and, most importantly, rolling up their sleeves to remove invasive plants from some ecosystem, planting trees, monitoring the migrations of monarch butterflies, various birds, and so on. It is a vast, enthusiastic army determined to save the environment and animals they love. What is your vision of Gombe in 50 years?

Jane Goodall: I hope there will still be a research station, tracking the great grandchildren of some of my original chimpanzee friends. After all, chimpanzees can live to be 60 years of age (occasional older) so it will take at least 100 years to answer some of the questions that are interesting about “nature” versus “nurture” – genetic inheritance, passing on of individual behaviors through observation, imitation and practice. We will be recording the effects of climate change and still working with surrounding communities, who will be way more “developed” but understanding the need to protect the watershed, and the environment for eco-tourism. Agricultural methods will be even more environmentally sustainable than they are today. Local people will be proud of their flora and fauna, particularly the chimpanzees. Looking back at your many achievements and accolades, what are you most proud of?

Helping people to understand that animals are not just “things” but sentient, sapient beings with individuality, minds and emotions. And starting Roots & Shoots. Many people want to do something to help wildlife, but are unsure how other than donating money. What else can people do to ensure the survival of the world’s many imperiled species?

Jane Goodall: Money can be an important part of it, but spreading awareness is also important, through social media, articles, writing books.

Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe

Educating young people – including developing curricula in schools. And starting Roots & Shoots groups!

Taking part in campaigns, alerting others through social media.

Volunteering (or working) for environmental conservation projects.

And finally realizing that every individual makes some sort of impact every day. Never forget that every individual matters. That you have a role to play in this life. That what you do, each and every day, does make a difference. Think about the consequences of the small choices you make – what you buy, eat, wear, etc. Where was it made? Did it cause harm to the environment (destruction of forest, for example, extensive use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, or genetically modifying crops) or to people (made with child slave labor or sweat shops, for example). Did it cause animal suffering (the intensive factory farms, Angora garments from China where the hair is pulled out of live rabbits, foie gras made by forcing fat into geese and ducks through metal tubes pushed down their throats, and all at the other cruel practices). When billions make the right environmental – and social – choices, major change will occur.



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