Monday, June 26, 2017

Small changes, and other things I learned about Dr Jane Goodall

Dr Jane Goodall wants to see chimpanzees in protected natural habitat - not confined in baron captive environments.

Are you familiar with the work of Dr Jane Goodall? I was fortunate enough to see her public lecture in Sydney last week. Famous for her study of the chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park – particularly the discovery that chimpanzees not only use but make tools – she has become an outspoken conservationist, travelling 300 days a year (even at the age of 84) to try to turn back the clock on species extinction.

She stood and spoke articulately and passionately for an hour, without any notes or cues, with the manner of Obi Wan Kenobi, about her early life and how attending a conference session in the 1980s on habitat destruction and species loss turned her into the activist she is today. Ironically she spent a lot of her early career battling the stigma (at least among her scientific peers) of being a leggy Nat Geo covergirl, but I got the impression that this in some ways spurred her to work even harder. So here are a few things I learned about "Jane".

She didn’t do it alone. When Jane was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine in the 1960s it seemed that she was a gorgeous, jungle-dwelling solo scientist living only in the company of her study subjects (chimpanzees). In fact because of various restrictions she wasn’t allowed to go into the jungle alone initially, and furthermore had to be accompanied by not just anyone but a European. So her mum Vanne upped and went to the jungle. While Jane was climbing peaks and watching chimps all day, her mum was in the camp – surrounded by creatures who could be dangerous, coaxing snakes out of the tent and even contracting malaria from which she almost died. Jane’s mum lived well into her 90s. When her mum left Africa, Jane soon met and married a National Geographic photographer who helped her set up a research station.

She got her PhD before she got her undergraduate degree. Her boss, Dr Louis Leakey, talked to colleagues in Cambridge and recommended her, and Jane managed to complete her PhD. Over the years she certainly did do the equivalent work for both the undergrad and postgrad qualifications, but not in the order we’re used to. In her book Reasonsfor Hope, she talks about why it was beneficial for her to study chimpanzees without a formal scientific education first. I’m sure some scientists will disagree, but it’s an interesting argument.

She counters her despair about the planet, the complex issues of habitat loss and fragmentation, anthropogenic climate change, species extinction and environmental degradation by encouraging people to make very small changes in their lives. Not necessarily trying to change the world, but understanding that every little action taken – every plastic bag refused, every item recycled, every meatless meal, every nature strip reinvigorated, counts. (For example, you could make a difference by choosing to refuse single-use plastic in July and beyond – find out more here: Though Jane does a bit more than just act locally. In 1977 she founded the Jane Goodall Institute which among other things runs conservation projects around the world. But during her talk she was most excited about her Roots and Shoots program (founded in 1991), designed to teach and get young people involved in conservation.

You can even enroll in a free online course for educators, taught by Dr Goodall and colleagues. More info available on the Roots and Shoots website.

If she weren’t trying to convince people to act to save the planet, Dr Goodall assured the crowd that really she’s an introvert: she’d prefer to be home, in the house she grew up in, or “alone in a forest”.

You can read more about her work here.