The Chimpanzee Lady

Jane Goodall, whose pioneering work on chimpanzee behaviour gave primatology a new direction, calls for urgent measures to save the planet and its wildlife.

Published : Aug 30, 2017 12:30 IST

Jane Goodall  speaking at the MES Theatre in Singapore on August 6.

Jane Goodall speaking at the MES Theatre in Singapore on August 6.

THE 84-year-old Jane Goodall started her speech in the way that she always does: by mimicking the rolling bark of a chimpanzee. It started with a low “ooo” and then rose up quickly to a burst of high-pitched “ooo”s. In the rarefied air of the MES Theatre in Singapore, where Jane Goodall spoke on August 6, the call that lasted for a few seconds instantly transported the audience to the forests of Africa, more specifically to the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania where in 1960 Jane Goodall began her epochal work on chimpanzee behaviour. The globally renowned primatologist, who has written extensively on her work with chimpanzees, has had a massive influence on wildlife conservation efforts worldwide for several decades. Her work has brought her many laurels over the decades, and she has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace for more than 10 years now. She continues to remain passionately committed to her work and was in Singapore for the 10th anniversary of the institute set up in her name (The Jane Goodall Institute) where she addressed a gathering discussing her work.

Jane Goodall grew up in London and had always been fascinated with animals. Supported by an encouraging mother who did not dismiss her curiosity and bought her books about animals, the young Jane Goodall had all the makings of someone who would embark upon a scientific career later in life. This avid interest in animals made her decide that she would go to Africa to study animals when she grew up. “I remember that I read the book Tarzan of the Apes when I was young and was horribly jealous when he married the wrong Jane,” she said with a smile. Times were tough when she grew up in post-War London. She ended up doing a secretarial course because she did not have enough money to go to university. Her dream to eventually go to Africa always remained. She put together the money by working as a waitress and finally set off for Kenya.

Jane Goodall described this journey eloquently: “What an amazing adventure, setting off on my own—aged a very young 23—we were very young and naive in those days. And spending 21 days on a boat, leaving the cold shores of England—gradually the water getting bluer and the air getting warmer; the smells from the shore that we were passing getting more exotic and finally arriving in Kenya. The very first morning, when I stayed with my friend, she woke me up to show me that right outside my window there were the paw prints of a big male leopard. And in those days the animals were all around. They weren’t confined, in Kenya or other African countries, to the game reserves and parks. They were just out there, and people were living in harmony with them. Except of course, there was a good deal of hunting going on.”

In Nairobi, Jane Goodall met Louis Leakey, a well-known palaeontologist who was interested in the links between the great apes and humans. This was a fortuitous meeting as he encouraged Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees, the primate closest to man. Later, Leakey was to also support two more dynamic women: Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, who went on to study gorillas and orangutans respectively. (The trio of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Galdikas, pioneering researchers, came to be known as the “Trimates” or “Leakey’s Angels”.)

Intimate connections

In Nairobi, after waiting some time for the funds needed for her research, Jane Goodall left for Gombe along with her mother and established herself in this place that would get identified with her pioneering work over the next few decades. She has since then authored at least 15 books, including books for children, and has also worked with film-makers who have chronicled her journey. Her early book In the Shadow of Man (1971), where she felicitously tells the story of her work with the chimpanzees of Gombe is a fascinating saga of her scientific work written in an accessible manner. Jane Goodall’s empathetic commitment to understanding the world of the chimpanzees made her a participant observer of a group of chimpanzees. By naming each of them and discerning distinct personalities in them, she humanises this primate species to the point that the reader will begin to appreciate the intimate connections between humans and chimpanzees.

Jane Goodall named the first chimpanzee that shed its fear of her David Greybeard for he had a beautiful white beard. This first friend that she made among the chimpanzees also provided the breakthrough in her observations. “Four months into the study came this breakthrough observation—when I saw David Greybeard breaking off grass stems and using them to fish termites from their underground nests. He was breaking off leafy twigs, and in order to use them as tools he first had to remove the leaves. He was using and making tools! This wouldn’t be exciting now, back then it was. Why? Because we were taught by science [that we were]… the only creatures who could use and make tools. We were defined as ‘man the toolmaker’.” This phenomenal observation helped Jane Goodall secure enough funds for her work to continue. As Jane Goodall stated this to the audience 57 years after the incident, there was a joyous enthusiasm in her voice that showed how important this discovery was to her and to varied scientists ranging from anthropologists to wildlife biologists all over the world.


Leakey also ensured that she was admitted for a direct PhD in ethology at the University of Cambridge after she had spent some timei n Gombe. Jane Goodall recalled: “I had been studying them [chimpanzees] now for about one and a half years when I got a letter from Louis Leakey telling me, ‘Jane, I shan’t always be around to get money for you, you’re going to have to get your own money and for that you need to get a degree. We don’t have time for you to mess about with getting a B.A. I’ve got you a seat at Cambridge University to do a PhD in ethology.’ As you can imagine, I’d never been to college, and it was very scary for me and I was terribly in awe of these erudite professors. So can you imagine what I felt like when they told me I had done my whole study wrong. I shouldn’t have given chimpanzees names; they should have had numbers—that was scientific. I couldn’t talk about them having personalities or a mind capable of thinking and understanding emotions. I was guilty of anthropomorphism—attributing human-like behaviour to non-human individuals.”

This would remain a constant criticism of Jane Goodall’s work, but in her speech in Singapore she made light of this line of thinking. “But fortunately, I had a wonderful teacher as a child—a teacher who taught me that these professors for all their erudite learning, in this respect, those professors were wrong, and that [teacher] was my dog Rusty. You can’t share your life in a meaningful relationship with a dog, cat, a horse, a bird, and not know that animals have personalities, minds and emotions. And you know I can’t really believe that what those professors taught was really true.”

Jane Goodall continued her work in Gombe. “I think the days after I got my PhD were the best days of my life because I could spend hours each day out in the forest on my own, and it was a very spiritual experience for me to be out in the forest, and you realise how every little species has a role to play, and each one plays its part in the tapestry of life. And I had the students to talk to in the evenings. I had a son by that time. I had time for writing, which I always loved.”

Jane Goodall’s work by this time was leading to the establishment of a new paradigm in the study of wildlife biology. When she began her work, animals and humans were seen as belonging to different “kinds”, but she demonstrated through her work that the difference was of “degree” and not of kind. Her study of chimpanzees helped researchers bring scientific studies out of their narrow confines to see the rich interconnectedness that humans (whom Jane Goodall described as the fifth great ape; gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans are the four well recognised species of great apes) had with animals.

Jane Goodall explained how similar chimpanzees were to humans: “When you put together the biological likeness such as the composition of our DNA, it differs from them [chimpanzees] by only just over 1 per cent: the structure of the blood, the immune system, the anatomy of their brain is almost identical. Then on top of that the behaviour, the tool-using, the gestures of communication that include kissing and embracing and holding hands, patting one another, shaking the fist, the competition between the males, the dominance, the swaggering, and posturing...which reminds me of me a lot of human politicians.”

From scientist to activist

By the 1970s, Jane Goodall had also established a permanent research station in Gombe, and even though she loved her work, she would not remain a scientist for too long. She recalled the event in 1986 that changed her mind: “I left because of the big conference in 1986 when we brought all the chimpanzee people together. We realised during a session on conservation that right across Africa forests were disappearing. Also, it was the beginning of the bushmeat trade, which was the commercial hunting of wild animals for food, and chimpanzees were caught in wild snares set by hunters for antelopes or pigs. There was also the spread of disease as humans encroached further into their forest habitats: building houses, growing crops with their cattle. And we also had a session on conditions in some captive situations and I had nightmares for weeks after seeing secretly filmed videos of our closest relatives in medical research labs in cages measuring 5ft x 5ft. I went to that conference as a scientist and I left as an activist.”

Since then, Jane Goodall has been constantly travelling and working on creating awareness about wildlife conservation. She started an organisation called Roots and Shoots in 1991 in Tanzania. It has a presence in 100 countries worldwide now and works on wildlife conservation.

Jane Goodall said that humans had already destroyed the planet and briefly explained why she felt that this was such a precarious time for the planet: “In so many parts of the world the habitats are being increasingly destroyed; wetlands have drained. We’re sprinkling poisonous chemicals onto our agricultural products. We’re destroying our environment with modern cultures and all of these poisonous products, agricultural and industrial and household waste is being washed down from the land into the rivers and out into the ocean. One of the great lungs of the world is the great rainforest absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and breathing out oxygen. These forests all around the world when compared to a century ago are disappearing faster and faster. The other great lungs of the world—the oceans—which also absorb carbon dioxide are polluted and all the plastic that we throw out ends up in the ocean.” While she struck a gloomy note, Jane Goodall ended her lecture with a lot of hope. “Young people give me hope,” she said, but added that the clock was ticking. “We don’t have much time and we need to get together—all together—around the world. And fight to keep this planet.”

Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed is in Singapore as a fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship.

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