The lady and the chimps: an interview with Jane Goodall

"I don't have wanderlust," says Jane Goodall, the legendary primate researcher and humanitarian tells us. "I'm more wander… driven"

8 mins

50 years ago, Jane Goodall’s pioneering studies of chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park redefined what we know about animal intelligence. Those studies have now become the longest continuous piece of wildlife research ever undertaken

Now 75, Goodall spends 300 days a year talking to conservation and humanitarian issues in her role as a UN Messenger of Peace, as well as continuing her work at Gombe.

You spend a huge amount of time travelling. Where’s home for you?

Jane: Yes, I’m away a lot. I just did a mini-tour of about six European countries in two weeks – meetings with youth groups, visiting zoos, making a film called Jane’s Journey – then it was off to Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then it was Paris for three days and now this craziness. My home’s in Bournemouth, where I grew up; that’s where all my things are. In Tanzania, Gombe is like a spiritual home, but I’m there so little these days.

So you pretty much live out of a suitcase?

Jane: I cannot tell you how I loathe packing. Somehow everything you own has babies on the road: it gets bigger, it grows. I should be an expert by now but I’m always in too much of a rush to pack. Everything I want is at the bottom, so everything erupts out.

Were you always a keen traveller?

Jane: No. I just went like a little homing pigeon, from England to Gombe, back and forth, and then I began adding the US to do lectures. I’m afraid I don’t really have wanderlust. I’ve been forced into travelling – I don’t lust for it. I’m wander… driven.

So it was curiosity about animals that took you to Gombe, rather than curiosity about Africa?

Jane: It was because Africa provided the habitat for the animals. As a child, we couldn’t afford holidays overseas, so instead I travelled through books. I was inspired by Dr Dolittle and Tarzan.

How did you finally get to Africa?

Jane: I saved up money waitressing and then, when I was 23, I went to visit an old school friend living in Kenya. Of course, there were no 747s or package tours in those days; it really was the dark continent. I went out on the old Union-Castle shipping line. The idea was to stay for a year and see what happened. I got off the boat at Mombasa, and we drove up into the highlands.

Did Africa live up to expectations?

Jane: Oh, absolutely. The very first morning there was a fresh leopard track on the farm and I saw an aardvark on the road – I’ve never seen that since. And seeing a giraffe close up… however much you know giraffes, to see one in the wild for the first time feels prehistoric.

Then you met anthropologist Louis Leakey, who sent you to Gombe to monitor chimp behaviour. Were you daunted by the responsibility?

Jane: Yes, I heard about him, went to meet him, and he gave me a job as his secretary just like that! And I said, “Well, before I work in your office, I really want to see something of Africa. I want to get outside the city.” So he let me go with him, his wife and one other English girl called Gillian to Olduvai Gorge [the prehistoric site now considered the ‘cradle of mankind’]. No human fossil finds had been made at that time, so it was totally wild, a completely untouched Africa, really just…wow.

After a hard days digging Gillian and I were allowed on the plains walking. There were lions, rhinos there – Louis must have been crazy to let us! One night a young male lion followed us, just a few dozen yards behind. Gillian didn’t dare look. She said we have to go down in the deep thick vegetation, and I said no, we have to climb up into the open. We had a little argument but Gillian followed me and the lion lost interest, and Louis said of course that was the right thing to do.

Louis deliberately chose someone who hadn’t been to university because theories of animal behaviour at that time were very rigid, and Louis didn’t want someone whose mind was biased in that way. Wise man. But still I had the responsibility to prove myself. I remember looking up at the hills and wondering, “Can I do it?”

My biggest fear was that I couldn’t enjoy the dream-come-true because if I didn’t see any really exciting behaviour, we only had money for me to stay for six months. So it was really important to find something. I knew that if we had time it would work: if you stay long enough with an animal, they get used to you.

Fortunately, it began to happen just in time: I saw [the chimp she christened] David Greybeard using tools and eating meat. It was the first time either had ever been seen. That got the money coming in, so after that I could just relax and really enjoy being out there.

Did you have a particular observational technique?

Jane: Through my childhood I would watch birds and spiders and make little notes. I used to sit there with my little notebook, a watch, pencil and rather bad binoculars. So I would just watch and note down the times when things changed and what happened. Eventually [at Gombe] I got to have check-sheets and tape recorders, but initially I didn’t see enough detailed behaviour to do that.

Nowadays, field research is so much more organised. Do you think it’s still possible to conduct the kind of ‘free’ observation you did?

Jane: Yes, I think in some places you can still do that. You’ve got to find the money and a country where the government is happy to let you do it. But I think there are still wild places around the world that you can go and eventually get the permission that you needed to do it. There are certainly plenty of problems still to be solved. We’re finding new animals and animals thought to be extinct all the time.

How have things changed in Tanzania since those early years?

Jane: Well, everything’s changed. The Serengeti was just wild; there wasn’t even a road to Olduvai. Now the wilderness around Gombe is basically gone – villages have sprung up – but it’s still not one of the main tourist routes, thank goodness. We have to keep our parties restricted to 6 people at a time in a group with a guide.

These days, is chimp-tracking at Gombe similar to mountain-gorilla-watching trips?

Jane: If people are lucky enough to get up close and see the chimps and the young ones play, it is exactly the same as with the gorillas: electrifying. But you can’t guarantee a chimp sighting. Gorillas travel as a group and you know where they’re going, but chimps can scatter and go off in twos and threes and you may not know where they are.

So we’ve worked hard in Gombe to develop other exciting things for people to do. We show videos, and explain what’s happening today, and you can always see baboons and red colobus monkeys. Even without the chimps there’s an atmosphere about Gombe. People can’t describe it: it’s healing.

Your work includes creating wildlife corridors for the Gombe chimps. Where do these corridors run to?

Jane: It’s very exciting. There are remnant forest patches outside the park, and we’re hoping to encourage the chimps out to them to inter-breed. The nearest one is about 11km away, but there’s another huge area to the south, so the dream is to get the corridor linked up there, and to introduce a programme to help the local communities and stop them destroying their forest.

We now know how genetically similar we are to chimpanzees. What do you think are the things that still separate us from them?

Jane: What you and I are doing now.


Jane: Yes. They communicate, but their communication system is though touch, posture, looks – body language you could call it, but it goes a bit deeper than that. They can learn 400 or more signs in American sign language.

Does tourism have a conservation benefit, do you think?

Jane: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. At the moment, money from Gombe tourism goes into one pot for Tanzania National Parks and it has to pay for the whole infrastructure of everything. But through our TACARE [community development] programme, we’ve benefited local people hugely.

The thing is about tourism and research is that they can both focus attention on the place and help to preserve it. It’s tourism involvement with the mountain gorillas that saved them.

During the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, people on both sides were being told, “Don’t touch the gorillas”, as it was the second biggest foreign exchange earner after tea in the country. So both sides hoped to win and continue exploiting gorillas.

So the government can see the value of tourism, but the danger is they over-exploit it. They say, “We’re getting all this money for [gorilla-tracking groups of] six people, now we’ll let it be 12”, and they get more money for tours, so they make it 20. That’s the danger; that they end up killing what people have come to see.

So you’re hopeful that conservation can work – that it’s not too late?

Jane: Absolutely! What’s the point of killing myself trying to save forests and chimps if the new generation isn’t going to do a better job looking after them? And our children haven’t given up; they believe they can save the world.

I have a mental picture of a giant globe, and every time you find an example of successful regeneration – like Gombe, or just a group of kids that have cleaned and restored fish to a stream – you put a bold cross on it: sometimes a big bold cross and sometimes a little one. And gradually these little crosses are growing.

Finally, what are your favourite places on earth?

Jane: Bournemouth, because I can look out of my window at the trees that I climbed when I dreamed of Tarzan and going to Africa.

Gombe of course, once I'm there – it’s bliss.

And other than that I think my favourite places mostly relate to the people. I love Taiwan: we have 650 Roots & Shoots groups across the island, and we’re linking up school gardens to make a corridor for indigenous butterflies.

Let’s see, I love parts of the US – Yellowstone, for example, and the migration of the sandhill cranes and snow geese in Nebraska. They come to the Platte River on their way north every March; millions come in each night, millions. It really is one of the seven wonders of the world.

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