Conservation Africa News –
PHOTO: CAMERON DAVIDSON
Next week marks the 60th anniversary of Jane Goodall’s arrival in what is now Tanzania’s Gombe National Park to study wild chimpanzees.* Although her story is a familiar one to many scientists, it has taken on a new importance in this era when climate change, racism, and a rapidly spreading coronavirus ravage the globe. It is a story of genuine scientific curiosity, determination, and respect for nature and humanity—all the things we desperately need now.
I talked with Dr. Goodall, virtually, where she was spending her self-isolation in her childhood home in Bournemouth, England.† It is the familiar place where she spent her early years climbing trees and observing her dog, Rusty. She told me the well-known story of how she met paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey and convinced him that she should study wild animals in Africa. She was happy to tell the story one more time. “Some people get it wrong, even now,” she said.
Leakey famously said that Goodall was a person of monumental patience. “There’s definitely still lots of opportunity for the old way of watching and recording and being patient,” she said. Goodall still insists that some observational work be done with handwritten note taking, but she also embraces the use of technology. “I believe that you cannot do everything digitally,” she said. “We did graduate to using [tape] recorders, which of course made the transcription extremely laborious because when you are recording, you have caught far more than you could write.” The important thing to Goodall was to get close and study the personalities and interactions among chimpanzee family members. She has been doing it for 60 years, saying “it yielded so much richness.”
The science that started in Gombe back then has evolved, changing and developing as it grows. In partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute (founded in 1977), Crickette Sanz, professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, has continued to build our understanding of chimpanzee tool use. Sanz told me that when her work began in the Republic of the Congo, Goodall traveled several days by plane, truck, and boat, and 20 km on foot to visit the research site and show her support. She says that “the world is yearning for [Goodall’s] ideals of hope, compassion, and change.”
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And that is where Goodall devotes most of her time now. Although the science is still important—over 300 research papers have now emerged from groups working in Gombe—Goodall lights up when she talks about her new efforts to build respect and hope for the future of humanity and the natural world. The Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education (TACARE) program seeks to use satellite imaging, mobile, and other technologies to ensure that local communities develop their own land-use management solutions and are included as partners in the overall scientific and conservation efforts conducted there.
Another program she devotes most of her time to now, Roots & Shoots, reflects her faith in young people and the future. She still has many concerns about the world. “How do we move into a new green economy?” she wonders. “How do we alleviate poverty so people can make the right choices and stop destroying the environment? How do we realize that putting the short-term economic gain over and above protection of nature is going to be the end of our species as well as the end of most life as we know it?”
In an effort to answer these questions, she uses her platform, and her story, to inspire the younger generation, just as she has also inspired the established scientists of today. To Goodall, “every individual makes a difference,” says Sanz, who sees Goodall as “a steward for nature, with equal concern for the smallest creatures to the largest remaining tracts of intact forest, and gifted in sharing all of its wonders. Through her global presence, she’s also emphasized the connectedness of all people and our responsibility to each other. From what I have witnessed, both her compassion and her impact are truly limitless.”
And so is Goodall’s empathy. “When you’re empathetic,” she says, “you’re watching something you don’t understand and you get that ‘aha’ moment because you understand them, and then you have a platform as a scientist to find out if your ‘aha’ moment is actually correct. Without the empathy you’d never get there.”
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