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“Chimps made me famous”

By Ana Carreira

Jane Goodall

The world bows to the legacy of Jane Goodall, the primatologist turned peace messenger and celebrity activist who has been striving for a fairer planet for thirty years. She was in Portugal this summer and talked to Volta ao Mundo of her iron will and firm belief in the human being.

She’s the world’s greatest expert on chimps but over the last three decades she has specialized in bringing hope to the hearts of millions of people. She wants to be remembered as someone who helped change minds about animals, she drinks a whisky every night and wants Beethoven played at her funeral. Ode to Joy. At the age of 79, between the battles and challenges, she continues to believe in a future where inhabiting the Earth is the greatest possible victory.

“Leakey believed women were more observant, more watchful, due to their maternal instinct (…) I only wanted Africa! Chimps made me famous but it was Louis Leakey that chose them for me!”

The dream of Africa

She was 4 years old when she hid in the chicken coop, waiting for a hen to lay an egg, while everyone searched for her for hours. Her sensitivity towards animals and nature was didn’t go unnoticed by her parents, who believed at first that her future life would fit the conventional pattern of British girls at that time, maybe as a secretary, married and with children. But little Jane’s future would be different. Books would introduce her to Africa, the magical continent, far away from Bournemouth where she lived, on the south coast of England. Despite the geographical distance, the dream remained present, waiting for what life would bring her. And that’s how the story of an inspiring journey starts; Jane Goodall herself tells the story with disarming simplicity.

The first contact with Africa came about through the invitation of a friend, in 1956, to spend a holiday in Kenya. The boat ride was paid for by working as a waitress. There where she first met anthropologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, whose secretary and personal assistant she became. At the time, the prestigious investigator was looking for someone without scientific training to start an observation study on chimps, not only to learn more about the primates, but also to gain new insights into man’s evolutionary past. He recognized that Jane Goodall fitted the profile perfectly.

“Leakey believed women were more observant, more watchful, due to their maternal instinct”, she explains, “that they would have a different sensitivity, another way of seeing the world, and that was what he wanted, a different approach. I only wanted Africa! Chimps made me famous but it was Louis Leakey that chose them for me!” She reveals that if she’d been able to choose, it would have been elephants.

“If it weren’t for my mother, the truth is I wouldn’t have made this life choice! The Gombe (a National Park on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in a Tanzania still under British rule, where she was obliged to travel with her mother at the age of 26) was a sort of magical place that I had the opportunity to discover every day.”

The New World of Gombe

In the summer of 1960, at the age of 26, one of Leakey’s three angels (see box) landed in what is today the Republic of Tanzania, in Eastern Africa, at the time a British colony, for which reasonshe was obliged to travel with her mother – girls couldn´t travel alone at that time – to the shores of LakeTanganyika, which later became Gombe Stream National Park.

“If it weren’t for my mother, the truth is I wouldn’t have made this life choice! The Gombe was a sort of magical place that I had the opportunity to discover every day” says Goodall about that remarkable new world, her second home for decades, from where extraordinary discoveries would emerge that would redefine the relationship between humans and animals.

“How could I have been conscious of that? At first I felt no purpose, I was too shy and naive (laughter), all I could think about was that the chimps kept running away from me, that was the biggest obstacle!”. Armed only with a pair of binoculars and a notepad, Goodall observed them from afar. Instead of giving them numbers, as stipulated by scientific method at the time, the young woman gave each individual a name. This was something that, later, would attract criticism from the scientific community concerning the danger of being blinded by anthropomorphism and losing the objectivity necessary for observation, something she was accused of on various occasions. However, the roots of the science of primatology were about to emerge from Goodall’s work.

Termites and tools

From Gombe Stream Research Center, established in 1965 – and which houses today students and researchers from all over the world -, David Greybeard was one of the first chimps to demonstrate the use of tools to capture termites, the first surprising discovery that would both contradict the theory that chimps were herbivores and also prove their intelligence as legitimate tool users, as opposed to the exclusive use of them by man. Not only were they intelligent beings, as the investigator would later maintain, but just like human beings, they were also endowed with a personality, were capable of reason, and showed emotions such as joy or regret. The data from the exhaustive observations all showed the same series of behaviors from the simians, interpreted to be tenderness and emotional bonds that could last for decades. Her work continued to throw up surprising discoveries, such as the disturbing revelation that chimps sometimes waged brutal war. Another phenomenon, observed in 1987, was the observation of the adoption of orphaned chimps by others that weren’t of close kin. And it was with this experience acquired in the field, led by Leakey himself, that she entered the University of Cambridge, in 1962, becoming one of the 8 people who finished their PhDs, in her case in Ethology – the branch of Biology that studies animal behavior – without an undergraduate degree. Determined to go beyond the restrictive scientific doctrines of the time, Jane Goodall posited valid ideas with scientific repercussions in the following decades, during which she suggested that similarities between humans and chimps exist, not only supported scientifically through the genetic code – only one and a half percent distinguishes human DNA from chimp – but also through the proximity of feelings, such as emotion, intelligence and social and family relationships, observed by the ethologist. Her works, such as Reason for Hope and In the Shadow of Man, enthused thousands of people who wanted to know about Jane’s chimps, to the point that the British newspaper London Times published an obituary for Flo, the old National Park chimp in 1962

“It’s incredible how only one and a half percent separates us from their genes. The more we learn about them, the more we have to admit we are very much alike. Religion and science have driven us from our own humility.” And what about her own faith? “I believe in a stronger spiritual power when I’m in intimate contact with nature. There’s something there and that’s enough for me. My faith lies in the power of youth, in the resilience of nature and in the marvel of the human brain” she declares.

From scientist to activist

In 1986 there was an important turn in the life of the ethologist when she participated in a conference on conservation organized by the Chicago Academy of Science. After creating the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, to support the research in Gombe, became aware of the urgent need to defend and conserve the species,

in particular chimpanzees, which she still campaigns for today. Serious problems, such as deforestation of habitat and illegal poaching, as well as the use of chimps in laboratory research, drove her to make the change from scientist to ‘activist’, in her own words, when she gave up the jungle thirty years ago to spend her life in airports and hotels, surrounded by millions of people to whom she delivers her message of hope. In the case of animal experimentation, for example, Goodall congratulates herself on some victories. “The paradigm of animal experimentation is finally changing. This year we’ve witnessed the total abolition, by the European Union, of cosmetic product testing on animals. In the United States there have also been changes – the tests on chimps weren’t contributing anything to the research.” The matter of poaching of wild species is another battlefield for the investigator given that, to her knowledge, it has been increasing over the last few years. “Of course money is always the big issue, but things aren’t that simple. If there are people interested in having an exotic animal in their home or garden, anywhere in the world, no matter how vigorous the pace of legislation, nothing changes if the demand doesn’t decrease” but stressing that in the past few years she’s seen some cultural shifts. “In countries like Portugal or Spain, where bullfighting is considered a tradition, it’s the same thing. In England, people used to watch public executions at weekends, it was a tradition that was finished.  that’s that”. Her journey has been closely followed by organisations from all sectors, state figures, agents in the world economy, large and small-scale entrepreneurs and a legion of fans that follows her via lectures, workshops and meetings in the four corners of the world. She spends three hundred days a year travelling, with a schedule planned to the minute, on a crusade to sensitise public opinion. “The only direction to go is to change public opinion. It’s what will be passed on to children and it’s what I’m trying to transmit. There’s still a long way to go, but things are slowly changing. There are already a lot of people working. There isn’t a single solution, you need to have enough energy and determination not to give up” she states.

If there are people interested in having an exotic animal in their home or garden, anywhere in the world, no matter how vigorous the pace of legislation, nothing changes if the demand doesn’t decrease (…) In countries like Portugal or Spain, where bullfighting is considered a tradition, it’s the same thing.”

The celebrity Jane Goodall

Her tenacious attitude catapulted her to fame, not only as an animal rights defender, but also as an ambassador for various humanitarian causes, among them the struggle against polio, the reason for her visit to Portugal this year, to attend the Rotary Convention. The activist’s international recognition attracts organisations, brands, entities and celebrities from the world of cinema and the arts, such as Angelina Jolie, who want not only to associate themselves with the hero Jane Goodall, but also to reward her efforts with funding for her work. “It’s true most of us look at a big problem and feel hopeless, don’t really know what to do. And that’s why this message of individuality made collective is so important.” she assures. In the company of the world famous Mr.H, the toy chimp that has accompanied her for almost twenty years, passing through 59 countries and three million hands, Jane Goodall crosses continents to share her jungle story, and above all to draw attention to the conservation of the planet and sustained development, in an attempt to sensitize and make aware those who are fascinated by her massive fragility in sharing power and responsibility for each individual.

“What I want to share with everyone is that there’s no doubt that each one of us, every day, makes a difference with every isolated act, but when you have small good choices made by millions of people, then that leads to the big change.” she says. Famous for her gift for communication and the sense of humour that she combines with wide experience and scientific knowledge, she debates environmental matters at the table with leaders of world powers, representatives of multinational companies or leaders of small local communities. “I believe in the capacity of dialogue and commitment. Often, if there are too many obstacles, it’s because we’re doing something wrong. You can’t be stubborn and you have to be able to see things from another perspective. Without that, nothing can be negotiated, not for either side.”

2002 brought her even more prestige, when she was invited by Kofi Anan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, to receive the greatest honor given to a world citizen, to be named United Nations Messenger of Peace. It was an important honour, along with the various awards and titles she already possesses, amongst which are the Medal of Tanzania, Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and the French Legion of Honor, the highest award in France.

“The greatest challenge is the biggest problem anywhere in the world: to educate! (…) Children, naturally, will always connect with animals and nature, they need it to grow up. In big city schools (…) we bring the green inside the classroom”

The Roots and Shoots Legacy

The first step in the famous Roots and Shoots program, founded by her Institute, was taken in 1991, when the investigator received a group of 14 local students in her home in Dar Es-Salam, in Tanzania. “The greatest challenge is the biggest problem anywhere in the world: to educate!” says Goodall. What started as a conversation in the 1990’s in Gombe turned into a humanitarian network of global volunteers, aimed at children and young people all over the world, with more than 150 thousand members, in 110 countries over four continents. In Uganda or in the Republic of Congo, teenagers are informed of the risks of HIV and encouraged to spread the word in their own communities. In Madagascar, for instance, two children joined forces to plant three thousand tree seeds. In Portugal, Roots and Shoots has been represented since 2006 by the Sociedade Portuguesa para a Educação Humanitária (see box), and welcomes anyone who wants to contribute ideas. Jane Goodall highlights the demand there has been for the program, but mentions lack of funds as the main obstacle to these initiatives continuing.

It’s a different story in England, however, where Roots and Shoots is already part of school programs in about five hundred London schools, where the values of ecology and the important role of nature are passed on.

“Children, naturally, will always connect with animals and nature, they need it to grow up. In big city schools we do things backwards: as far as we can we bring the green into the classroom” she explains. “In our homes there are also simple things we can do when there are no green spaces. And why not explain to your children how a plant grows in a pot? There’s always room for a pot!” she suggests, although she does admit to being discouraged by the excessive use of game consoles, television and computers in the everyday lives of our young.

However, she’s not silenced by defeat. Goodall holds strongly to the hope that “every day, each one of us makes a difference and even the smallest acts of tenderness and compassion have a huge effect”. Even in a world gripped by a severe economic and social crisis, that’s her belief. And if Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, the father of National Geographic, one day described Jane Goodall’s work in primatology as a “trail-blazing path”, we can use the same word to describe her legacy, centred on the desire for a resplendent planet where all beings live together in harmony. Is there hope that we will achieve it?

“Each one of us, every day, makes a difference with every isolated act, but when you have small, good choices made by millions of people, then that makes the big change.”


Leakey’s Angels

Birute Galidikas and Dian Fossey were the two other women selected by the famous Louis Leakey to continue the work in the field of primatology. Around the same time as Jane Goodall was sent to Tanzania, Galidikas moved on to Borneo in Indonesia, where she specialized in orangutans. Likewise the famous Dian Fossey, close friend of Jane Goodall, left an unquestionable legacy in the study of gorillas in the forests of Rwanda, where she worked for decades and was finally murdered in 1987 at the age of 53, possibly for motives of revenge for her fight against gorilla poaching. Today animals are protected by the Rwandese government, partnered with several organizations in her name.

Volunteering in Tanzania

Currently, it’s possible to visit and help Jane Goodall’s chimps through international volunteering programs, open to anyone who wants to combine the pleasure of a trip to Tanzania with acting in the field as a volunteer. The opportunity is given by the Jane Goodall Institute, which monitors applications from those who want to see the place where everything began. The volunteers the reservation receives have been very important for the conservation work, but also for the cultural exchange between foreigners and local communities. The programs start in January, February, July and August. For more information, including program fees, see the Jane Goodall Institute’s website:

Roots and Shoots in Portugal

In Portugal, it’s possible to join a work group for Roots and Shoots or to create your own project with one or more people. Since 2006 the delegation of the program, working in Sintra, represented by the Sociedade Portuguesa para a Educação Humanitária (SPEdH), has worked only with volunteers who dedicate themselves to workshops in various places around the country, with the purpose of encouraging the creation of work groups. It’s still a new project, but has already implemented several initiatives involving the Sintra Dog Pound, the planting of trees and the creation stalls for local and traditional commerce. According to Constança Carvalho, from SPEdH, the purpose is to “sensitize people to develop ideas with projects that may serve the interests of the community, animal welfare and the environment, and which have the privilege of being associated with the Jane Goodall Institute”. For more information, see SPEdH’s website:

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