Jane Goodall on a life as a woman defending the wild

In a series exploring women in international affairs, environmentalist, Jane Goodall, speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about why humanity still has reason to hope.

Interview
16 minute READ

Dr Jane Goodall DBE

Founder, The Jane Goodall Institute; UN Messenger of Peace

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Born in London in England in 1934, Jane Goodall, what made you fall in love with the natural world?

I was born loving the natural world. Even at 18 months, I was watching earthworms so intently that my mother said, ‘I think you must have been wondering how they move without legs,’ because I had taken a handful into bed with me. But my mother supported all my love of animals and creepy crawlies.

I was born loving the natural world.

[I then had] a stuffed chimpanzee, Jubilee, who was made when the first chimpanzee was born at the London Zoo. In all my childhood, I never wanted a doll, I wanted toy animals, and a chimpanzee was so exotic, but I never thought of studying chimpanzees at the time.

I also had a dog, Rusty, who I didn’t think of as a pet. He was an old soul. We didn’t even own him. He lived in a hotel around the corner and he would arrive in the morning, go home for lunch, then come back to stay with us until he went to bed about 10 o’clock. I’ve had many dogs but Rusty was different from all of them. He was just so intelligent and understanding.

You travelled to Africa to study chimpanzees in Gombe in Tanzania when you were 26, becoming one of a group of women known as ‘The Trimates’, studying primates in their natural environments. What was it like for you as a woman setting out to work in a field dominated by men at the time?

It was a very different world then. We kind of accepted the way the world was. In what I wanted to do – study wild animals – I was at the forefront alongside three men. But, fortunately for me, when I got to Africa, having saved up waitressing around the corner from my home, I met the late Louis Leakey and he felt that being a woman might be beneficial because he thought I might be more patient with the wild animals.

He was also happy that I hadn’t been to university because the way that scientists at the time were thinking about animals in those days was very reductionist. So, when Leakey finally encouraged me to go to Cambridge University to get a PhD, I had been working with chimpanzees for about one and a half years.

But, at university, it was shocking when I was told I’d done everything wrong. They said, chimpanzees weren’t supposed to have had names, they were supposed to have had numbers. I was also told I couldn’t talk about their personalities, minds or emotions because those were unique to us. But that’s where my early years with Rusty made me understand that they were completely wrong and that, we humans, are not the only beings with personalities, minds or emotions.

Humans are part of, not separate from, the rest of the animal kingdom.

Chimpanzees are biologically so like us that we share up to 98 per cent of our DNA with them. Then, because of all of the behaviour I was describing, and when the filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, who became my husband, filmed what I was describing too, science gradually changed. It has had to change and scientists have had to accept that humans are part of, and not as I was told, separate from, the rest of the animal kingdom.

There are many women now in the field, and a lot of them say, it’s because I wanted to be out in the wild like you but there are a lot of excellent men who study wild animals too.

I was the first woman to go out in the field and had a documentary by the time Diane Fossey met Leakey and said she wanted to study gorillas. Then Birutė Galdikas came several years later wanting to study orangutans. But it was easier for Leakey to get money for them because of the film about Jane and the chimpanzees.

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In her early days at Gombe, Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest for chimpanzees. Photo: The Jane Goodall Institute.

In her early days at Gombe, Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest for chimpanzees. Photo: The Jane Goodall Institute.

— In her early days at Gombe, Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest for chimpanzees. Photo: Jane Goodall and The Jane Goodall Institute.

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In 1960, you discovered chimpanzees use tools like humans, and in doing so, transformed the world’s understanding of the relationship between humans and animals. But it came with a focus on you being a woman too. How do you find the challenges and opportunities for women and girls have changed over the years? 

I never thought about it in terms of men and women [at the time]. Then, when all of the stuff was going around in the press, where other scientists were grumpily saying, ‘She’s only getting this credit because she’s a National Geographic cover girl and she’s got lovely legs.’ I mean, today, if somebody said that, you’d be shocked, but it was kind of normal then.  

But, I did think, if having lovely legs – which I did because I’ve looked at the film – helps to get money to do what I want to do, then thank you legs.

Of course, later on when I had my PhD, I wrote this big book about the chimpanzees of Gombe where I had to teach myself all that I had not learned, and it was only after that book was published, that I felt at ease among the other scientists.

The chief of a tribe in South America once said to me, ‘We think of our tribe as like an eagle. One wing is male and the other wing is female. Only when the two wings are equal will we fly high.’

Without any question, since I first came out into the world, the opportunities for women, and the treatment of women in many countries, has changed considerably.

There are women now in high positions in the corporate world and across politics. In fact, I was amazed the other day to see the number of women in the number of countries who were high up in government. It’s extraordinary. But, of course, there’s still discrimination against women too.

I met the chief of a tribe in South America once, and he said to me, ‘We think of our tribe as like an eagle. One wing is male and the other wing is female. Only when the two wings are equal will we fly high.’ That’s something I really like. I’m looking forward to a world where men and women have equal opportunities.

Human activities have altered three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of all of the ocean on Earth, leading to a rapidly changing climate and unprecedented global biodiversity loss. How have you found the impact humans have had on the natural world changing throughout your lifetime?

During my lifetime, I have seen horrendous change, even just here at home in the UK. When I was growing up, there were so many birds that there was a dawn chorus. But not anymore. A lot of species have vanished from this area.

In the summertime, at night, we couldn’t even put the light on when it was dark because the room would be full of insects of all sorts. We’d get moths and then we’d get the May and June bugs. But now I’m excited if one insect comes in.

The impact on insects is terrifying because it’s all because of our use of chemicals and pesticides and the building up of roads and the destruction of habitats.

What we have to realize is, we humans, are actually a part of the natural world. Even in the middle of a city, we depend on it for clean air, water, food, clothing, everything. So, when we destroy the environment, we’re harming our own future.

Here we are, the biggest difference between us, chimpanzees and other animals is this explosive development of our intellect. I mean, goodness, there’s a full moon right now. So do something for me the next time you see it. Look up at it, and say, ‘We put people up there.’ It’s taken for granted now but humans landed on the moon which I remember happening and, when I look up there, I get that same feeling of wonder and awe that I did when I first saw it.

Healthy ecosystems are made up of a mosaic of species but, as they disappear, it’s like pulling threads from a tapestry, and if enough threads are pulled, that ecosystem will collapse.

But, it’s terrible what’s happened with the loss of biodiversity. We depend on healthy ecosystems but an ecosystem is made up of a mosaic of plant and animal species which are all interrelated. Every single one has a role to play and, as they disappear, it’s like pulling threads from a tapestry, and if enough threads are pulled, the tapestry will hang in tatters, and that ecosystem will collapse. This is what’s happening around the world.

We are in a crisis mode with climate change and changing weather patterns. The hurricanes, the floods, the fires, the droughts and the heatwaves. It’s really grim. But it’s our fault.

This pandemic was caused by our disrespect of animals. We move into their habitats, we create situations that push some of them into close contact with us – such as catching them alive and trafficking them around the world to sell as food, medicine or pets – and we make opportunities for pathogens to jump over from animals to humans which may then start a new zoonotic disease.

We’ve got to stop disrespecting the environment and disrespecting animals and find a new relationship with nature.

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Young researcher Jane Goodall with baby chimpanzee Flint at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanganika. Photo: Hugo van Lawick and The Jane Goodall Institute.

Young researcher Jane Goodall with baby chimpanzee Flint at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanganika. Photo: Hugo van Lawick and The Jane Goodall Institute.

— Young researcher Jane Goodall with baby chimpanzee Flint at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanganika. Photo: Hugo van Lawick and The Jane Goodall Institute.

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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.

There are 7.8 billion of us on the planet – it’s going to be 10 billion by 2050 – and we’re using up natural resources faster than nature can replenish them.

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.

The right story, at the right time, that reaches the heart. 

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.

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Jane Goodall studying the behaviour of a pair of chimpanzees in 1987. Photo: Penelope Breese and Getty Images.

Jane Goodall studying the behaviour of a pair of chimpanzees in 1987. Photo: Penelope Breese and Getty Images.

— Jane Goodall studying the behaviour of a pair of chimpanzees in 1987. Photo: Penelope Breese and Getty Images.

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The environmental movement has changed significantly over the years. How do you see the role of children and young people today who have taken a different approach to fostering change, from blocking roads and occupying buildings, to protesting on the streets?  

It’s certainly raised a lot of awareness. We have a programme at the Jane Goodall Institute called Roots & Shoots for children and young people from kindergarten through to university and in their first jobs. It began in 1991 with 12 high school students but it’s now in 65 countries.

These groups of children and young people choose projects to make the world better. To help people, to help animals and to help the environment because we’re all in it together. It includes planting trees and clearing trash and it’s changing the attitudes of their friends and families.

Far more important than the colour of our skins, our cultures, our languages or our religions, is the fact we’re all human.

Every single group has as a kind of motto, ‘Every individual matters and every individual makes a difference every day.’ We’ve now got ex-Roots & Shoots who have become parents themselves and teachers and CEOs and politicians and they have kept the values that they learned during the programme – the main value being respect.

Having respect for other people and for animals and for the environment and coming to understand that, far more important than the colour of our skins, our cultures, our languages or our religions, is the fact we’re all human. We all cry, we all laugh, we all bleed – and the blood is the same.

This programme is my greatest reason for hope and it is based on children and young people taking action. I mean, they will take part in a demonstration, but never any aggression such as occupying buildings. But, you know, we’re in such a grim state that there’s room for everyone trying to make a difference.

In your latest book, The Book of Hope, you describe the importance of hope on dark days. You have lived through almost a century of war, pandemic, and now, a global environmental crisis. Given the challenges the world is facing, how do you feel about the future of humanity on Earth?

It depends on whether or not we get together to take action now. There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the media and it’s right that they tell us what’s going wrong but, in travelling around the world, I’ve met so many amazing people [with] amazing projects and I want the media to give more space to those hopeful stories because, if people read too much doom and gloom, they lose hope. If you lose hope then you fall into apathy and do nothing. If we do nothing then we’re doomed. There’s no question.

Hope is not looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s saying, if we get together, there is hope at the end of the dark tunnel.

In The Book of Hope, [I describe] four main reasons for hope. The first is our brain, which we have not always used well, but we are now beginning to come up with solutions to the climate crisis such as clean energy.

The second is the resilience of nature. I described the bare hills around Gombe. Well, thanks to our Tokkari programme, there are no more bare hills. Nature can come back if you give it a chance. Animals, on the brink of extinction, have been given another chance in many countries because more and more people are working to make that happen.

The third is the power of young people and the fourth is the indomitable human spirit. The people who tackle what seems impossible and won’t give up and so often succeed and then inspire others. People say to me, ‘What can I do as one person?’. Well, I say, what do you care about? You can’t save the world. Nobody can. But if there is something you can do then do it. Take action and see if you can get other people to take action too because then you will inspire more and more people.

When I talk about hope, it’s not looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s saying we have all these horrendous problems but, if we get together to tackle them, there is hope at the end of the dark tunnel. 

‘Every individual matters and every individual makes an impact on the planet every day.’ You can choose what sort of impact you make. What do you buy? Where did it come from? How was it made? Did it harm the environment? Was it cruel to animals such as in factory farms? Is it cheap because of unfair wages? If so, don’t buy it. But, then again, if you’re very poor, you don’t have that luxury because you have to buy the cheapest to survive. So we have to alleviate poverty too.

We, the elite, also need to reduce our own individual environmental footprints and change how we relate to the planet because time is ticking. The future depends on what we do now.

How do you view your legacy? You have done so much throughout your life for the environment. Is there more that you would like to see happen?

I want to see a lot more happen. [Laughs] You might as well aim for the stars because you might get to the moon. That’s how I feel.

You might as well aim for the stars because you might get to the moon.

I think part of the legacy I would like is, firstly, the Roots & Shoots programme because it really has made so much change. It’s unbelievable the number of people who tell me it changed their life. It gives me hope.

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Secondly, the work I was able to do with the chimpanzees – and the chimpanzees themselves – led science to admit that humans are part of the animal kingdom. That work has helped more people understand the true nature of animals. They are sentient beings. Not just chimpanzees and the other great apes or even whales, elephants and dolphins. We know how intelligent birds are. We know how intelligent pigs are. We know how intelligent rats are. There’s still so much [for us] to learn but, in some cases, we’re destroying places before we’ve learned about them.