Up to 1 million chimpanzees were estimated to be living in the wild in 1900, but today, there could be as few as 172,000. Chimpanzees, along with 1 million different species, are facing extinction as a result of global biodiversity loss but there have been cases of species coming back from the brink of extinction too. Do you think it’s possible to stop the current global environmental crisis that the world is facing, and if so, how?
Well, we have to, if we want to survive as a species. For me, it happened in 1986, when I went to a conference about chimpanzees along with other scientists who, by then, were studying them in six other African countries. We had a session on conservation and it was utterly shocking to see forests disappearing across Africa and chimpanzee numbers dropping.
I went to that conference as a scientist, and planning to stay in Gombe perhaps forever, but I left as an activist. I didn’t make that decision. Something happened inside of me.
I then knew I had to find out more because, if you don’t find first-hand information, you can’t really talk well about it. So I got some money and I got to six of the sites and I learned a lot about what was happening to the chimpanzees.
I also learned a lot about the plight of so many African people living in, and around, chimpanzee habitats. The crippling poverty, the lack of healthcare and education, the degradation of the land and the growing human population.
What I realized when I flew over the tiny Gombe National Park, where we’re still carrying on our research 60 years on, is that, when I first arrived in 1960, it was part of an equatorial forest belt that stretched right across Africa. But, by the late 1980s when I flew over, it was shocking to look down on a tiny oasis of forest that was Gombe surrounded by bare hills and more people living there than the land could support.
They were too poor to buy food from elsewhere and so they were cutting down the trees – even on the steep slopes – because they were desperate to grow more food to feed their families because their own land was overused and infertile.
That’s when it hit me. If we don’t do something to help these people find a way of living without destroying the environment then we can’t save chimpanzees, forests or anything else. So we began the Jane Goodall Institute and a programme known as Take Care – or Tokkari – where the people wanted our help to restore fertility to their overused land as well as better healthcare and education for their children.
Gradually, as they came to trust us, we were able to introduce water management programmes, microcredit opportunities based on Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank, especially for women, scholarships to keep children in school and also family planning information delivered by local people.
When I first began to talk about the human population, I was told, I better not, because it would be seen as blaming the developing world. But that’s totally not true. One child from an affluent family uses up about, I don’t know what percentage more, resources than 10 children in a poor village in Africa. People were talking about population control at the time but that’s wrong. It’s nothing to do with control. That’s autocratic. I was talking about voluntary population optimization.
There are 7.8 billion of us on the planet today – it’s going to be closer to 10 billion by 2050 – and, already, we’re using up natural resources in some places faster than nature can replenish them. So if we don’t change the way we behave then what’s going to happen? I don’t know. It’s a huge threat to our future and to the future of the planet.
You have used the power of storytelling to put a spotlight on the threats facing the environment. What is the significance of telling stories as a means of engaging the public on environmental issues? Have there been some stories that have worked and some which haven’t? And how far do you think public attitudes towards the environment have changed as a result?
My way has never been to point fingers at people to tell them they’re bad people. I got some wise advice from my mother when she said, ‘When you meet somebody who disagrees with you, first of all, listen to them. Maybe you can get a better understanding of why they think that way because maybe they’ve got some points that you’ve never considered. If you still think that you’re at least ‘righter’ than they are then you’ve got to try to reach their heart.’
You can blind people with statistics, because I’ve been to lectures and, at the time, it makes perfect sense. These terrifying statistics of increasing climate and so forth. But, afterwards, you don’t really remember a lot. But, a story, the right story, at the right time, that reaches the heart.
So, instead of trying to reach the head with numbers, get a feeling for the person, then tell a story to reach their heart. Sometimes you may not even know that your efforts have been successful.
I have a lovely story that shows it is always worth trying. I got in a taxi in London to get to Heathrow airport and the driver had been told who I was. Then he started on me. ‘I can’t stand people like you. You’re just like my sister. She spends all her spare time volunteering to help animals in a shelter when there’s all these starving children.’
It was very early in the morning but I sat forward on the seat and I told him stories about Gombe. I told him how we’re working with children and young people in different parts of the world. I told him amazing stories about how animals have helped humans but he just grunted.
When we got to Heathrow airport neither of us had changed. But I made a donation to his sister. Then, when I got back from my trip, there was a letter from his sister where she said, ‘Firstly, thank you for your donation. Secondly, what did you do to my brother? He’s been three times to help me in the shelter [since he met you].’ So it’s always worth trying but not in an aggressive way.
I have another lovely story too. I was talking to the CEO of a company in Singapore and he said to me, ‘We’re virtually carbon-zero and we’re going greener and greener all the time.’ He then explained that there were three reasons why he had taken this route with the company. ‘One,’ he said, ‘realizing that the planet’s resources are finite and if we go on using them up with the speed – and thoughtlessness – that we’re doing today then we’re doomed.’
‘Two, consumer pressure, because people don’t want to buy products that have been sourced unethically. They’re demanding that products haven’t harmed the environment [or] weren’t cruel to animals [or] aren’t cheap because of unfair wages or forced labour.’
Third, he explained to me, which was the tipping point for him, was when his daughter, who was about 10 at the time, came back from school and said, ‘Daddy they’re telling me that what you’re doing is hurting the planet. It’s my planet and my friends planet too. Is it true, Daddy, are you hurting the planet?’ That was it he said. You see, stories, stories, stories, get to you all the time.