From here to Gombe: Jane Goodall on her life

06 February 2014 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Michael Hammond.
Road to Gombe: Primatologist and chimpanzee champion Dr Jane Goodall with Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.
Road to Gombe: Primatologist and chimpanzee champion Dr Jane Goodall with Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.

Just two months shy of her 80th birthday, chimpanzee researcher and activist Dr Jane Goodall is a compelling messenger. Prior to delivering the Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture to a packed Baxter Theatre Centre, Goodall addressed the Cape media on campus, providing insights into her extraordinary life and times.

There's only one thing on Dr Jane Goodall's bucket list: to make the world a better place.

"I take one day at a time," Goodall said on the eve of delivering her Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture, The Life and Times of Dr Jane Goodall − in celebration of her 80th year.

Goodall is the first of The Trimates, the name coined by British archaeologist Dr Louis Leakey for Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas, the trio of celebrated primate researchers and champions.

Tickets for the event, free to the public, went in just hours. The last time the Baxter was filled to capacity for a VC Open Lecture was in April 2011 when naturalist Sir David Attenborough spoke on the work of Alfred Russel Wallace and the birds of paradise.

These lectures provide a vital interchange between the university and the community; opportunities to hear first-hand from renowned academics, researchers and innovators.

And here, at UCT, Goodall is at ease with media.

"I'm not a bit excited about turning 80," she told the assembly in the stately Ben Beinart Room, surrounded by portraits of UCT patriarchs.

Before she enters, there's a glimpse of her slight figure wearing her signature silk scarf, silver hair drawn back from her face. She's digging around in two tote bags, no doubt looking for Mr H, the fluffy toy chimp and "inspirational totem" that's been her companion for 26 years. Mr H is a gift from a blind former US marine, Gary Haun, who had the audacity to follow his dream.

He became a magician.

She places Mr H on the table, neatly diverting the focus. Shutters click furiously.

Woman and wild primate.

It's been that way for most of her life.

She didn't have a university education (but thanks to Leakey, Cambridge awarded her a PhD in ethology based on her five-year study of chimpanzees). As a child, the young Goodall had told her startled family she wanted to go to Africa to live with animals and write about them.

Only her mother didn't laugh at the idea.

Margaret Morris-Goodall's stolid British advice to her daughter was: "Work hard, take advantage of your opportunities, and never give up."

In 1960, Margaret found herself on the shores of east Lake Tanganyika, setting up camp in Gombe Stream National Park with her daughter, a tender shoot of a woman in khaki shorts.

Her mother's companionship was chief warden David Anstey's condition for Goodall working there. The country was still a British protectorate and the research took her deep into forested mountains.

Her mother's advice is often repeated to young audiences; Goodall reminds them that she paid her first fare to Africa on a waitress's wages.

In Africa she met and worked for Leakey, who asked her to study chimpanzees, hoping to find links between great apes and early hominid behaviour.

A pioneer of primate research in the wild, Goodall's work was bought to a larger stage when she appeared on the December 1965 cover of National Geographic ("New discoveries among Africa's chimps"). Her first article had appeared in the publication in 1963.

Today the Gombe research programme is the world's longest continuous wildlife study: the Jane Goodall Institute's Gombe Stream research Centre attracting researchers from around the globe.

There's new information coming in all the time, which raises new questions.

But it's about more than chimpanzees.

At a conference of chimpanzee experts in the 1980s, she was appalled and disheartened by evidence of rampant forest decimation, growing bush-meat trade, and snares that amputated the hands and feet of "our closest living relatives".

She made a decision.

"I went in as a scientist and left the conference as an activist."

That activism soon grew to encompass broader conservation concerns: she couldn't ignore the plight of the people around Gombe.

"I couldn't save the chimps when people were living in dire straits."

Goodall now travels the globe, working some 300 days a year, to rally support and funding for her vision, a bigger plan to address human needs and ecosystems.

She launched the TACARE (Take Care) programme in Kigoma in 1994 to conserve the environment and create sustainable livelihoods.

"We weren't just a group of whites going into a village with a salvation plan," she says. "The people wanted food, education, health care."

Establishing those relationships took time; villagers were no doubt wary of the foreigners "messing about with monkeys".

"They became our partners."

The team was able to build a buffer around the tiny national park.

"The chimps have three times more forest; it's regenerating faster than it did 10 years ago."

But she's been sobered by the universal message from the youth she meets on her travels: your generation has compromised our future.

"When I think back [to the world] when I was the age of my youngest grandchild, 13, I feel so ashamed."

In South Africa the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) South Africa Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the Umhloti Nature Reserve, is a sanctuary for chimps displaced from their natural habitats.

Targeting young people, JGI's Roots & Shoots - a global programme − promotes leadership and conservation education.

Her message to youth is direct: "Don't feel hapless and helpless. Each person works on a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Each of us makes a difference every single day − we don't have a choice."

What would she have done differently in her life?

Her response is wistful. She regrets the divorce from her first husband, Baron Hugo von Lawick, wildlife photographer and filmmaker, whom she married in 1964.

"We had a son together," she says of Hugo ("Grub"), born in 1967. "But what do you do when you just don't get along with someone?"

Her legacy has been judged harshly by some; her early research methodology allegedly marked by the early limitations that accompany those who are pioneers.

But her legacy remains remarkable.

"Jane Goodall's work on the Gombe Stream Chimpanzees inspired a whole generation of researchers on primate social behaviour," said Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, head of UCT's Department of Biological Sciences.

"Through her Roots & Shoots programme she has inspired young people all around the world to take better care of our wild animals and the fragile environments in which they live."

(Jane Goodall's lecture was live-streamed on UCT's website.)

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