- Primatologist Jane Goodall is arguably the world’s best known conservationist for her research on chimps and her efforts to raise awareness on environmental issues globally.
- On April 3rd, Jane turned 85 and was honored by the City of Los Angeles for her contributions to the planet. And actor Leonardo Dicaprio hosted a star-studded birthday dinner for her.
- For the occasion, Mongabay’s founder Rhett Butler interviewed Jane about some examples of why she remains optimistic for wildlife and wild places.
- Disclosure: Jane is a member of Mongabay’s advisory council.
To honor Jane Goodall, the City of Los Angeles declared her 85th birthday, April 3, 2019, to be “Dr. Jane Goodall Day” and hosted a ceremony where the conservation icon talked about many things including her connection to the city. Her birthday was capped by a dinner gathering hosted by her friend, actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio.
After her birthday, Jane, a Mongabay advisory board member, recounted in an interview a 1990s visit to L.A. where she won over of a room full of skeptical senior police officials with a chimpanzee call and provided an update on new initiatives via the Jane Goodall Institute, Roots and Shoots, and her recently-announced foundation.
In recognition of Earth Day 2019 and the 85th birthday of the world’s most recognizable conservationist, below is an excerpt from the conversation between Jane and Mongabay founder Rhett Butler. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Mongabay: What brought you to L.A.?
Jane Goodall: As you know it was my birthday this week and the city of Los Angeles honored me by declaring April 3, 2019 is “Dr. Jane Goodall Day”.
Mongabay: And Leonardo Dicaprio threw a nice 85th birthday dinner for you.
Jane Goodall: Well, it was quite the experience for me too. Leo and I have become really good friends. He’s such a nice person. So genuine.
Leo really does care and he really does know the animals. He’s just done a film on one of the most endangered animals in the world, the vaquita.
He understands the issues, spreads the word, and brings people together. He’s a good guy.
Mongabay: He also presented a $1.2 million donation towards your work.
Jane Goodall: Leo is very committed. He is also generous.
Mongabay: You recent launched the Jane Goodall Legacy Foundation. What is the aim of the foundation?
Jane Goodall: The foundation is an endowment that aims to carry on my work after I’m gone. JGI and Roots and Shoots are doing wonderful work, but there’s still much to do to help young people become better stewards of the planet than we have been.
Mongabay: It’s easy to get depressed with all the negative developments of late. You said one of the things that keeps you upbeat is the fact that young people are really embracing these issues and mobilizing. Are there other areas you see as being hopeful for conservation right now?
Jane Goodall: Well, yes. I’m traveling around the world for three hundred days a year. I meet so many incredible people doing incredible things. Here in California, the condor was down to 12 birds a while back and was nearly written off as bound for extinction. But the population was over 150 the last time I looked. And similar recoveries are happening with many different animals around the world. I wrote a whole book on it. “Hope for Animals and Their World.”
In addition, people like Leonardo DiCaprio are taking up these causes, which is important because many people listen to him. His fans love him and get behind what he supports.
There are many incredible projects around the world that are helping nature recover in places we’ve destroyed and made ugly. These places won’t be exactly the same as when they were intact, but forests do grow again and animals can come back.
One of the things that gives me the most hope is the human brain. We are just beginning to use our brains for good. For example, clean, green energy. Now if governments would just stop subsidizing the oil and gas industry, while taxing clean, green energy projects, large areas of the world could move off the grid.
Mongabay: Are there any cities you would call out for taking positive steps?
Jane Goodall: There are many examples among cities. Singapore, to name one, is doing quite a lot. It is trying to preserve its forests and create habitat on top of buildings. We have a terrific Roots and Shoots program which is working with the government on human-monkey conflict. Did you hear about the otters? The otters come into the city.
Mongabay: Our Indonesia team has done some reporting on otters living in extremely polluted waterways in Jakarta.
Jane Goodall: Nature can be amazingly adaptable and resilient. I was just reading yesterday about the horrible pollution in a city in India. It turns out that flamingos are able to thrive in the local river because of the algae growth resulting from all the human waste.
Good news is important to spread because if it’s all bad news, everybody gives up and says, “Well, what’s the point?” My job is to go around giving people hope.
Mongabay: Incidentally, we’re launching a new series on Mongabay soon that focuses on solutions beyond the tech solutions we cover via the WildTech section of the site.
Jane Goodall: That’s very good. Those positive stories need more attention.
I love Mongabay. I’m always telling everybody about it.
Mongabay: It does seem like awareness is rising and that humanity’s circle of compassion is continuously expanding if one takes a long-term view. Over the past several thousand years, we’ve gone from caring only about our family, clan, or immediate community to caring about much broader groups of people to now caring about other species and the habitats that sustain them. Do you think your work with chimps helped accelerate this trend over the past half century?
Jane Goodall: Well, awareness is growing, that’s for sure. More people are aware of environmental problems and more people understand that animals, like us, are sentient beings. More people understand how intelligent many animals actually are.
When I went to Cambridge in 1962, it was taught that the difference between us and all other animals was one of kind. For me, it was really unbelievable to think this because chimps are so like us biologically. And then finally, the scientific community was forced to accept the fact that this young girl from England who hadn’t been to college was actually speaking the truth when she talked about tool-using and tool-making when they saw the National Geographic footage of the activity themselves. And so I attribute the chimps to helping me to break that horrible scientific arrogance that we were completely separate from the animal kingdom. Because we’re not.
Once you accept that there isn’t a sharp line between us and chimps, then you’re forced to accept that because chimps were considered animals, that there isn’t a sharp line between us and other animals either.
Mongabay: On the optimism theme, we recently did a Mongabay podcast with incoming U.N. Environment Program chief Inger Anderson. One of the things she said was women represent 3.5 billion conservation solutions. So I was curious as to whether you see the leadership role of women changing and growing in conservation and beyond.
Jane Goodall: I haven’t done a specific study to find out exactly how fast that’s changing but it does seem that many women become leading conservationists. And speak out about environmental issues.
Mongabay: Also on the solutions front, one controversial issue that came up in a conversation with a guest at your birthday dinner was the use of genetic engineering to restore extinct species, akin to Jurassic Park-style opportunities like bringing back the woolly mammoth or a recently departed rhino sub-species, for example. Do you have an opinion on that?
Jane Goodall: Well, I’m happy to talk about bringing back the woolly mammoth. Such an endeavor is going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and we’ll be bringing back an Ice Age creature onto a warming planet. I think we should be spending that money trying to save the elephants that we have, instead of allocating scare resources to bring back long-dead species.
Bringing back a recently extinct rhino, the dodo, or the passenger pigeon would make more sense if we can save enough habitat to bring these creatures back into. Habitat is really important.
Mongabay: Are there examples of ‘good news’ conservation stories you want to call out right now?
Jane Goodall: I was just recently in Sierra Leone, which was one of the chimp-range countries I visited in 1987 to find out what was going on with chimp conservation. That visit more than 30 years ago was important because that’s when I learned the plight of so many of the people living in and around the chimpanzee habitats who were suffering from crippling poverty, lack of good education, and lack of good health facilities. That’s when it really hit me: unless we help the people, there’s no point in trying to save the animals because it just wasn’t going to work.
On that 1987 trip I met a wonderful man called Bala [Amarasekaran], who was an accountant. He and his wife had “rescued” two infant chimps from the market. Of course, we know now not to buy infant chimps or anything else from markets because you perpetuate the illegal animal trafficking, but at the time, he didn’t know that. His plan was to send them to the U.S. to a good zoo, but by then, CITES regulations had come in, so that was no longer an option. He asked me, “Jane, what shall I do?” We went out in the forest together where I said, sort of half-joking, “Bala, you better create a sanctuary.” Which he did together with his wife Sharmila!
Ultimately, he was able to rescue many orphaned infant chimps confiscated by the government from the illegal bushmeat trade and from other causes. But then came that terrible, 10-year civil war. Almost all expats left during the war. Bala is Sri Lankan, so he could have left, but he stayed to care for the chimpanzees. To protect them from the fighting, he brought them into a huge enclosure. He had to do this because there was so much shooting — people were shooting animals to eat. But he got attacked in the media for “being cruel to the chimps”, when in fact he was doing everything possible during those desperate times to protect them. He kept them all safe and once the fighting ended, they were released back into the sanctuary.
He continued to keep the chimps safe during the terrible Ebola outbreak several years ago. Again, he could have fled, but he stayed for the chimps. And then there was the awful mudslide in 2017 that killed 1,000 people, including some of his staff, due to people cutting down trees on steep slopes. He stayed through that as well. Now I think he’s got around 70-something chimps.
This year I went back to Sierra Leone to visit Bala and his sanctuary [Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary]. I was absolutely amazed at what a wonderful sanctuary it has become—it’s been rated the best in Africa. He’s managed to make very good relations with government officials and now they are trying to promote environmental tourism to save some of the country’s beautiful forests. Sierra Leone still houses some of the most threatened forests in West Africa, including Guinean montane forest. The Sierra Leone government wants to save these places, and tourism is one way to provide livelihoods for local people some money and bring in foreign exchange. And so, because of all this, Bala managed to pin down the president, Julius Madaa Bio, for the occasion of my visit. The president gave me the Order of the Rokel, the country’s highest civilian honor, and we managed to get the president, the first lady, the minister of forestry and agriculture, and the minister for tourism to declare the protection of the environment and wildlife as a top priority on their political agendas. They also declared the chimpanzee to be the animal of Sierra Leone, which is thought to be home to 10 percent of the estimated 55,000 chimps in the wild. That means the chimp will be all over the place, including on bank notes. All that happened during just the four-day visit. It was magical!
Mongabay: On the issue of chimpanzees, one of the most moving videos I’ve ever seen is you with a chimp named Wounda at Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre. Could you describe how that encounter felt?
Jane Goodall: Wounda’s backstory is pretty amazing. “Wounda” means “close to death” in the local language. When she came in as a very small infant she was badly wounded from the bullets that killed her mother. Rebecca [Atencia], Tchimpounga’s veterinarian, brought her back to life. And then when Wounda was an adolescent, she got really, really sick and was again near death, not breathing. Rebecca saved her again by giving her what I believe was the first chimpanzee blood-to-blood transfusion. So Wounda’s name is very appropriate.
I had not met Wounda until the day of her release on the island as I hadn’t been to the sanctuary often. I did talk to her on the boat as we went out to the island though. I thought, “She’s with people she knows but she must be feeling worried. ‘What’s going to happen to me now?’”
When we opened the cage, she went first to Rebecca, whom she knew. And Rebecca petted her. And then, she’s sitting up there on the crate. Having been with me, she looks around and it’s almost as though, if you watched it, she does a double-take. She looks past me. Looks back. And then, that amazing embrace! Not a quick, normal embrace like a chimp but it just went on and on. And there was a little kiss, if you watch closely. She kisses my arm. And we were all teary. It was extraordinary.
Mongabay: Are there any updates on Wounda?
Jane Goodall: Yes, she’s still on the island. The chimps on the islands aren’t absolutely in the wild – they still get food supplements. So, it’s very easy for the staff there to visit and keep track of the chimps’ health. If there’s a sick chimp, the staff can do something about it. We know Wounda is now the top-ranking female of the group of 30. At the moment, she’s able to dominate the adult males but I don’t think that will last very long. But anyhow, all our females are on birth control because we’ve got 165 and it’s very expensive to keep them. And still babies coming in. The females have birth control implants but in all these years, one implant went wrong: that was Wounda. Two-and-a-half years ago, I was on the island when she had her first baby. There were no complications: mother and child doing fine. The baby is called Hope.
Other recent features and interviews with Jane Goodall at Mongabay:
Scientists & conservationists say: Give Nobel Peace Prize to Jane Goodall
Audio: Dr. Jane Goodall on being proven right about animals having personalities
* The Jane Goodall Institute does not endorse close proximity or handling of wildlife in any form. Only experts and professionals in their field should do so, as interactions of this kind can be harmful for both wildlife and humans.