Jane Goodall on life, legacy and why dirt-lovin’ youngsters are our best chance to save the world

When Dr Jane Goodall arrives for our interview at the Chelsea Hotel in downtown Toronto, she’s only moments off the phone talking about November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. It’s there that Dr Goodall will join the world’s most prominent environmental activists and experts, scientists and politicians, all of which have one objective in mind: to create a legally-binding and universal agreement on reducing our impact on global climate conditions, from all the nations of the world.

But before she jet-sets to Paris to debate greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures, she’s here to talk with me about why kids love earthworms—and why these dirt-lovin’ youngins’ are our best chance to save the world.

The 81-year-old British primatologist—wearing a purple shawl draped over a taupe turtleneck and her signature Africa-shaped pendant necklace—has a quiet poise that belies her vocal advocacy. For the past three decades, Goodall has been fighting for animal welfare and conservation, spending nearly 300 days a year lecturing and travelling.

In 1977 she formed the Jane Goodall Institute and then in 1991, Roots & Shoots, a global youth-led initiative where kids take on big conservation efforts on a local scale. It’s a programme that is especially close to Goodall’s heart. After all, she was once a kid growing up in suburban England, reading Doctor Doolittle and Tarzan of the Apes, and dreaming of studying wildlife in Africa.

For years, Goodall lived deep in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, studying the social and family interactions of chimpanzees. Known as the ‘woman who redefined man,’ Goodall contributed groundbreaking research in primatology, most importantly dispelling two-long standing beliefs that only humans used tools and that chimpanzees were vegetarian.

Today, she wants to empower youth so they can develop a rich, lasting relationship with the environment—and hopefully inspire future generations in the process. ‘I’ve spent an awful lot of my life fighting to conserve forests and chimpanzees, to improve animal welfare,’ Goodall says. ‘But there’s little point in any of this, even if it’s really successful, unless the next generations are going to make a better job of stewardship than we have.’

In an exclusive interview with Love Nature, we spoke with Dr Goodall about her life, legacy and the future of conservation.

Love Nature: With so many gadgets and devices these days, it seems like there’s a disconnect between young people and nature. How does the Roots & Shoots programme bridge this gap?

Goodall: When I look at a child, I think about how we’ve harmed the environment since I was that age. I feel anger, embarrassed about our species, disappointed, but is it too late to do something about it? There are a lot of scientists that will say yes, we’ve reached the point of no return. We can just learn to survive in a world that will go on changing.

I think we have a window of time, but only if we all get involved. [The Roots & Shoots programme] has found that young children, when they have the opportunity to interact with nature, immediately react positively. If you wait until they’re in middle school or even high school, it becomes very, very hard to get them involved. But the little ones, they love messing about in the earth, planting trees, seeing things grow.

Is there a prime or ideal age to get kids involved?

We encourage parents to involve their kids from the earliest possible age. We have Roots & Shoots programs in pre-school. I was apparently studying earthworms when I was 18-months-old. I had a wonderful, supportive mother—and this is key—who when she found my bed all covered in worms, she didn’t get mad at me. She just said, ‘Jane, they need the earth or they’ll die.’ We took them back into the gardens.

What other memories of wildlife do you have from your youth?

There wasn’t much wildlife around us, except for birds, so I have many memories of birds in the gardens and watching them make nests and raise their babies. One robin even came into my room and made a nest in the bookcase, which was enchanting. In the garden there were squirrels and sometimes we could see hedgehogs, but that was about it really.

Instead, you read Doctor Doolittle and Tarzan of the Apes to explore the more exotics areas of the world.

Doctor Doolittle came into my life when I was eight, and I so badly wanted a parrot to teach me animal language. I actually pretended to my friends that I could interpret for them the birds and squirrels, and they would all believe me. I remember so well the story where he rescues circus animals and takes them back to Africa. That was so magical.

When I was 10, I found Tarzan of the Apes and fell in love with Tarzan and was very jealous when he married the wrong Jane. That’s when I decided that when I grew up, I would go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them. [When I told people this], everyone laughed at me. World War II was raging, Africa was still the dark continent, we had very little money, my dad was off fighting, and my mom, sister and I had gone to live with my grandmother. And, I was just a girl. [People would say]: ‘Jane, dream about something you can achieve.’ But not my mother, who said if you really want something, you’re going to have to work really hard, take advantage of opportunity and never give up.

Jane Goodall with a young chimpanzee. Photo source: nationalgeographic.com

The Jane Goodall Institute takes a very holistic approach to conservation. What’s the importance of having a wide outlook?

In the early 90s, I had the chance to fly in a small plane over the Gombe Stream National Park and the surrounding area, and I was utterly shocked. The hills were completely bare. It was clear that more people were living there than the land could support. This area was thick forest in 1960. The soil had been over-farmed and was no longer fertile. The people were struggling to survive and that’s when I realised, if we don’t do something about improving the lives of these people, then there’s no way we can save the chimpanzees. That became the Jane Goodall Institute program, TACARE, or Take Care.

We began not in the way that so much well-meaning aid is delivered, by going into a poor village and telling the people what we can do to help make things better. With TACARE, we had a team of carefully picked Tanzanians, all of which worked in a NGO to do with forestry or health. The team listened to the people and asked what they felt would make their lives better. We went in with their approval doing what they wanted, which was more food, better health facilities and better education for their children. We couldn’t clear any more forest because there weren’t any more forests to clear, so we restored fertility to the overused land without using chemicals. We introduced some water projects, bringing water in from the streams, channelling it through the village, cleaning it, and putting it back in the stream.

As a result of these people trusting us, they set aside land for conservation along the watershed, which is the edge of the Gombe park, a formed a buffer between the chimps and the people. We introduced the TAKARE program in other villages, and now there’s land set aside for conservation to form a corridor so Gombe chimps can interact with remnant groups outside, which is really important to genetic health. The chimpanzees in that area now have three times more forest than they had when we began the program in 1994.

What are the issues facing chimpanzees today?

I would say the biggest threat overall is loss of habitat and deforestation. In some places, it’s the bushmeat trade, which is the commercial hunting of animals for food. There’s a sudden upswing of the live animal trade that we thought we more or less curtailed. This is very concerning because chimpanzee numbers are dropping and they’re endangered.

I think part of the way that people can feel more connected to nature is seeing it firsthand, and that’s where ecotourism comes in. You’ve said eco-tourism is kind of a double-edged sword. Can you elaborate on that?

I think that ecotourism, when it’s properly managed, can be a really good thing. It changes people’s lives. You can have 10 tourists, they’re not really harming anything, and they’re giving money to the country. But if [guides] are making so much money with 10 tourists, [they might think] ‘why don’t we have 20 and make twice as much money? Or 30?’ So you get too many people and the animals are pressured, it’s just very, very sad. You can go on the Serengeti and you can find a lion because there will be 22 VW busses parked around it.

There are too many tourists at Gombe, [but] there’s no obvious problem for the chimps yet.

I thought that because chimpanzees are so like us, they would start feeling uncomfortable if surrounded by outsiders and being gawked at?

It probably does on some of them. At the same time, I’ve been amazed to see that they seem not to mind. I know I was once following Fifi, one of my favourite chimps, and she had a baby, and there were too many tourists in camp. I was following Fifi and I thought well, surely she’ll just move on. No she didn’t. She draped herself right in front of these tourists. There was a young male, Goblin—he was actually alpha male—he came over and he’s looking at Fifi, and looking at the tourists and I’m sure he was wondering, ‘What?’ Anyway, he got up and he walked straight towards the tourists and sat in the middle of them, looking at Fifi. As if, ‘What are they up to? What do they see that I don’t see?’ It was extraordinary.

That sounds incredible. What’s the most heart-warming moment you ever witnessed?

It was when old Flo, the female who taught me so much about mothering, and her infant Flint, who was about four months-old. I remember they had been running away from me for months when I first arrived and now she trusted me so much that she allowed this little infant to come up to me. She kept her hand around him, and followed him, but she let him to totter over to me. He looked at me with these big eyes and he reached out and touched my nose.

Photo source: nationalgeographic.com

Did you have a favourite chimpanzee? Can you even pick a favourite?

You can certainly pick favourites. Chimpanzees are so like people. There are nice ones and really nasty, mean, objectionable ones—just like us. My favourite of all time is the one who first lost his fear, David Greybeard. He demonstrated tool using, he showed me that chimpanzees sometimes hunt and eat meat. In a way, he introduced me to the other chimps because if he was in a group and they were ready to run, he would just sit calmly and they would sort of look from him to me, and back. I suppose they thought, ‘She doesn’t seem to be so scary after all.’

How did you win their trust?

Patience. Not trying to get too close too quickly. Wearing the same coloured clothes.

Did you have routine?

Oh yes. I was up before light. I ate a bit of toast. A cup of coffee from the thermos. Back at dusk, which is at around 7 p.m. If I knew where the chimpanzees were, I would go to their nest and watch them climb down. If not, I would go and hope to hear them or see them with my binoculars. That was the routine every day. People ask, ‘What about weekends?’ I didn’t know when it was a weekend. I don’t know now either.

What will the future of conservation look like in the next 50 years?

Jane in October 2015. Photo source: Wikipedia

It depends what happens now. Will we stop elephant, rhino and tiger poaching before it’s too late? Will we stop killing pangolins to sell their scales as magic? We’re fighting and that’s where Roots & Shoots comes in. We’re in 140 countries now and the young people are choosing projects to make the world better for people, other animals and for the environment. The projects all have a theme of learning to live in peace and harmony with each other and Mother Nature.

If you’d like to know more about the Roots & Shoots please visit: www.rootsandshoots.ca. More information on Jane and her conversation work can also be found via The Jane Goodall Institute.

Tickets to Dr. Jane Goodalls’ talk at the Sony Centre in Toronto, Ontario, April 12th can be purchased here.