You’ve spent nearly 50 years studying chimpanzees and your research into their behaviour transformed scientific perceptions of the relationship between humans and animals. How similar are chimpanzees to us?
The difference in our human DNA and theirs is less than two per cent. They show emotions that are similar or identical to those that we call happiness, sadness, fear, despair and so on. Strong, affectionate and supportive bonds that develop among family members can last a lifetime of 60 years or more. They kiss,
embrace, hold hands, pat one another on the back, swagger and shake their fists.
What are the main differences?
We have developed a language that enables us to make plans and discuss ideas. There has been explosive development of the human intellect. Yet we are destroying the only planet we have. It seems that, somewhere along the way, we have lost wisdom.
What or who makes you most happy?
I am most happy sitting on my favourite peak above Gombe National Park in Tanzania where I fi rst began researching chimpanzees. Unfortunately, I only have that opportunity a couple of times a year. I very much enjoy walking my dogs along the beach on the rare occasions that I find myself at home in England. I treasure any time I have with my son, grandchildren and extended family. Working with young people also brings me incredible joy. I have hope in the tremendous energy, enthusiasm and commitment of youth from around the world. With Roots & Shoots, the environmental and humanitarian youth program I started in 1991, we have already inspired almost 100,000 young people in nearly 100 countries to effect positive change in their communities.
Can you describe a typical day?
In 1986, my life changed when I attended a conference in Chicago that brought together the community of field researchers that were studying chimpanzees. One session was devoted to the importance of conservation. Another session discussed the often cruel treatment of chimpanzees used in entertainment and medical research laboratories. I arrived at the conference as a scientist. I left as an activist. I had a new mission, which has led to my spending approximately 300 days a year on the road advocating the way to a healthier future for the earth. I talk about the social and environmental problems that face our planet including its great ape populations.
So for the past 22 years or so, my typical day involves waiting in airport lines, checking into hotels and meeting amazing people at lecture halls around the world. While it’s quite exhausting, it has to be done.
What are the biggest threats facing chimpanzees?
Loss of habitat and the commercial bushmeat trade. Around the turn of the last century, there were an estimated one to two million chimpanzees living in the African forests. Today, there are fewer than 300,000 in the wild. I am always amazed at how many people are still unaware of the extent to which great apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans – are endangered.
How do you define success in life?
Finding a passion and pursuing it. In my day, women were thought unfi t to travel alone or work alone, especially in a place as wild and presumably dangerous as Africa. As a woman, entering the male-dominated field of primatology was also considered a bold move. Many people thought I could not do it, but I did. This is why I encourage young people, particularly young girls interested in science, to pursue their dreams – and never give up.
What’s your greatest achievement?
Perhaps one of the greatest honours I have ever received was being named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2002 by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. I was reappointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last year. I carry the message that to achieve global peace, we must not only stop fighting each other but also stop destroying the natural world.
Are you optimistic about the future?
We have to be optimistic if we want a better place for future generations. Using the right amounts of head and heart, I have absolute faith that working together we can save threatened species, the planet and ultimately, ourselves.
Do you sometimes feel discouraged?
When I feel discouraged I do what my mother always used to do when we were children – she would say: go and read a book. That is a great thing to do.
How to support Jane’s work
The Jane Goodall Institute, which aims to protect chimpanzees and their habitats,has 23 offices around the world. It also runs community-centered conservation and development programs in Africa and Roots & Shoots.
Jane is global ambassador for Gant clothing and has worked with them to produce an organic cotton ‘Bag of Hope’ (£8). Each purchase supports the Jane Goodall Institute.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009
Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Green Living Editor.