Gombe National Park, 1960. A heavy, tropical rain whips over Tanzania’s tight jungle, pervaded by the smell of rotting trees and sour vegetation. The drops patter among the thick leaves, trickle through Jane Goodall’s blonde hair and run down her neck.
The rainy season has been longer than usual. The thick grass has grown tree-high and Jane’s body is striped with scratches – she has learnt to carry her clothes in a plastic bag and walk naked to the look-out point every dawn to shield them from the rain and keep herself dry and warm for as long as possible.
This morning she’s sitting at the edge of a ravine and waiting for the chimpanzees, who usually come here and eat in a fruit tree.
Hearing the slow steps behind her, she lies flat on the ground, completely still so that the apes won’t notice her – like so many times before – and flee. The steps come closer and stop just beside her.
She has been detected.
A black form climbs a tree above her and sends out loud shrieks. She stares up into the male chimpanzee’s dark face, he is so close that she can see the yellow teeth and pink tongue in his wide-open mouth.
The large animal thumps the tree trunk and shakes the branches so that twigs rain over her. He works himself into a furious rage.
Then he quietens, climbs down again and moves behind her, so close that she can hear him breathe.
The silence is broken by a loud roar and feet stamping through leaves. Suddenly Jane is struck hard to the head. Thinking she’s about to be attacked, all her instincts tell her to flee.
Then the male turns around and disappears, as fast as he came.
Jane is alone again, with pounding heart and shaking legs, but also a sense of triumph.
She has never got this close to a wild chimpanzee before.
After three months in the nature reserve, she’s getting frustrated. Malarial fever lasting several weeks has taken up far too much time, and whenever she’s got close to the chimpanzees they’ve fled. In a fortnight the money runs out – if she doesn’t present some concrete results the research grant won’t be extended.
Jane wants to stay in the jungle.
This is what she’s dreamed about ever since reading Tarzan as a child, perched up a tree at her home in Bournemouth. Since hoarding pocket-fulls of earthworms, since she sat hidden for hours in the hen house just to find out how an egg comes from a hen, she has been spellbound by animals.
Now they are so close, but so fleeting, and she doesn’t want to disappoint her mentor. He has staked everything on her – a completely uneducated 24 year old woman.
But in the jungle it’s the chimpanzees that set the agenda. To get close to them takes patience, and Jane’s extreme patience will pay off; a few months later she makes a discovery that crushes behavioral science’s myths and makes scientists question everything we previously believed about mankind’s place in nature.
A discovery that begins an improbable life’s journey.
Milan, November 2011
The train to Rome has just left the station, the morning damp rising slowly from the Italian plain outside, and I am searching through the crowded carriages.
She’s not hard to find.
On the table in front of the slender woman sits a stuffed-toy ape – the mascot she always carries.
She introduces him as “Mr. H.”
Around her sit her entourage – stressed and passionate women who work for the Italian section of the now worldwide Jane Goodall Institute. They have lobbied for months so she’ll receive yet another honorary award – this time in Rome from the Italian president.
Her hair, now gray, is still back-combed into the pony-tail that became her signature 50 years ago, in the pictures that made her the National Geographic’s young jungle-heroine.
She’s sitting with closed eyes. 300 days travel a year is challenging for a 78 year old. It’s in places like this, between airport terminals, lecture halls and hotel rooms, that she now lives her life; far away from her dream-like existence in Tanzania, where she studied chimpanzees for 25 years.
“Of course I long for my jungle, but I don’t have a choice. I went to the rainforest to learn more about animals, but realized that I needed to leave to save them,” she says, and gives me the look that I’ve read about. The nearly-hypnotic, calm, sure gaze that she learned to use early to get her own way.
Her gaze and, above all, her obvious conviction, have taken Jane Goodall a long way. Her work to protect primates and their environment takes in 89 million Swedish crowns a year, and her nature protection project with young people, Roots & Shoots, has spread to 100 countries across the world. She has have five professorships and 85 awards, including the UN’s Messenger of Peace.
The 23 year-old Jane, boarding an oceangoing ferry from Dover in 1957, had no idea of the journey she had just begun. How could she know that half a century later she would be one of the world’s most famous scientists?
Jane came from a family of strong women. The men were absent and there was too little money for her to attend university.
A childhood friend had invited her to a family residence in Kenya, and Jane had worked as a secretary for a year to save up the money for the journey.
The only thing she dreamed about, as she was rocked to sleep by the ferry’s throbbing motor, was that in three weeks she would land in Africa.
“It is so wild, uncultivated, primitive, mad, exciting, unpredictable. … I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt a stirring in my blood. Out here I am no longer mad – because everyone is mad,” she wrote in a letter home several weeks after arriving.
The fearless and adventure-hungry beauty dazzled the stiff, British colonial-society, and it quickly became clear that she wasn’t like the others. Her early male-admirers have talked, with terrified delight, of how she could suddenly undress and dive into the pool at a cocktail party, how she passed them in motorcycle competitions and always chose the most difficult horse to ride.
Certainly she could have married one of the bachelors of the colonial establishment, but the Africa of her dreams was wilder than that. And the key to it wasn’t with the pale elite. Instead it was with a brilliant and eccentric 52 year-old paleontologist, white but grown-up among Africans, who was curator of Nairobi’s Natural History Museum.
“If you’re interested in animals, you should meet Louis Leakey,” someone said.
And soon she had succeeded in persuading the famed fossil-scientist to engage her, despite having no higher education or experience, in his most dangerous and far-reaching research project yet.
Louis Leakey was obsessed with making sense of humanity’s prehistoric past, and he had made several important discoveries from our early ancestors. Through them he was able to work out what a stone-age human could have looked like, what she ate, and how she used tools. But social behavior doesn’t fossilize.
Leakey suspected that through studying chimpanzees, whose DNA only differs from modern human’s by one percent as we now know, you could work out how our ancestors lived. But that would take years and a researcher with extreme patience.
“He wanted someone with fresh eyes, who wasn’t theoretically partisan, and I definitely think that my unschooled perspective helped me,” says Jane when I ask how she succeeded in winning his trust.
“He tested me by asking lots of questions, and because I had studied everything I was interested in myself at the Natural History Museum, I was able to answer. When he took me out to the bush, he saw that I was at home in the wild and didn’t care about clothes and parties.”
The fact that Louis Leakey was head-over-heels in love with Jane must also have played a part. Married for several years, he made several passes at her which she was forced to try to turn down without crushing his dream.
It’s still easy to understand how you could be bowled over by Jane Goodall’s magnetism. Although we are surrounded by loud train-travelers and their even louder mobiles, I am engulfed by the calm that, she says, she carries with her from the jungle. Her presence is impossible to resist and she looks at you in a particular way – as if she carried a wonderful secret.
It wasn’t just Jane’s charisma that made Louis Leakey choose her for the study. He had the feeling that a woman could maybe be better than a man at studying animal behavior.
He thought that they could be more patient than men, and would maybe seem less threatening to wild males – especially among the man-like primates.
But he emphasized that it would be difficult. There were no guidelines for a field study like this that would take many years; the longest previously had lasted a couple of months. Africa was still seen as the dark continent; there were no vaccinations, no private aviation, no roads or luxury resorts. The area where Jane was to reside consisted largely of impenetrable jungle, full of deadly animals – not least the chimpanzees themselves who were considered to be at least as strong as four people.
Soon after she’d arrived in the hills and wooded valleys around Lake Tangyanika, Jane managed to shake off the guards and porters who had been engaged to help her. What remained was a tent, an African cook, a boatman who transported Jane over the lake and Jane’s mother, Vanne, who had been forced to come along as cover so that the authorities would allow a single woman into the area at all. But most of the time, from six in the morning to late at night, she spent alone at her look-out points.
Did you never feel alone?
“I was never alone – I had the chimpanzees, the birds, nature. And also the Tanzanian cook and the boatman were there in the evenings. When my mum went home I missed her, most of all I think I missed someone to share things with. But I’ve always loved being alone. And now I almost never am. I miss solitude,” she says, and looks out through the train window.
The story of Jane’s violent first encounter with the old chimpanzee male spread among the local population who gained the impression that the mystical white woman possessed some magic power, that she could go unharmed where others would be injured.
“Our relationship came to be built on mutual trust,” she says. “The chimpanzees tolerated me. I respected them. I felt love towards some of them, but not in the way that you love a person or a dog. And, unlike a person or a dog, they didn’t love me.”
Did you ever feel threatened?
“By the chimpanzees? Absolutely,” she says, and laughs. “When they rushed up and knocked me over and stamped on me.”
How did you react then?
“There’s nothing you can do. You can’t run or climb a tree, so you just pray to God.”
Did you ever fear for your life?
“No, They definitely weren’t out to kill me, but they did try to scare me, and most of all to demonstrate that they were dominant, which is ridiculous because they already know they’re dominant. But they rarely do things that are actually life-threatening. Frodo, an especially aggressive male, used to always come and knock me over. But several times when I was on the edge of a precipice without any bushes underneath, he let things be. He knew where the line was.”
She talks about the chimpanzees as if they were old friends, or perhaps disobedient younger siblings. Her special relationship with the anthropoid apes would be controversial, but it would also help her to solve more riddles of evolution than anyone else in the field.
Unlike field researchers who crept up on the animals like hunters, Jane slowly but surely attempted to become one of them. She dressed herself in the same clothes every day, and she acted unconcerned when they detected her by, for example, pretending to sit and chew on some leaves.
“The first chimpanzee I met looked at me and ran away. But one of them stopped being afraid. I had been following him all day, I crept out of a dense and tangled bush thinking I’d lost him, but he was sitting and waiting for me. I picked up a palm nut and held it out on my palm, and he looked away,” she relates, and illustrates the first intimate meeting with her slim, wrinkled hands.
“I stretched out my hand with the nut even further, and then he turned and looked directly into my eyes. He took the nut and dropped it on the ground and then carefully squeezed my fingers. I had seen that this is how chimpanzees calm each other, and I understood exactly what he meant. It was perfect communication.”
The chimpanzee she’s talking about is David Greybeard. It was him that built the bridge between Jane and the other apes, he became her friend and helped her become accepted by the others as a part of the group. But Jane’s naming of her study-object was controversial too.
It was he who gave Jane her big research breakthrough when “one cold and miserable day” she witnessed how he fashioned a tool from a twig in order to fish termites from a mound.
Until then it was thought that precisely this making of tools was what differentiated man from other animals. When Jane informed Louis Leakey of her discovery, he answered with a telegram: “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
“That was one of those moments that helped us to re-evaluate our place in nature,” says Jane. “The line between man and other animals was no longer clear, and it become more and more blurred over time.”
In addition to the fashioning of tools, she also witnessed how emotionally developed chimpanzees are. Their advanced social structure became apparent when she observed how they hunted with sophisticated cooperation.
Her notes, which she wrote up in her tent at night, are filled with examples of how apes kiss and cuddle each other, how they shake hands and dance in the rain.
She saw their altruistic sides – how young male chimpanzees would adopt young orphans for no personal gain.
But she also saw their dark sides. Not least during what she was to call “the four-year war,” when the members of a chimpanzee group systematically exterminated a rival group to expand their territory.
She had already discovered that chimpanzees were meat-eaters, something not previously believed, and how they allocated resources according to a complicated system of social relationships.
But this was something else entirely.
She saw how the chimpanzees tore each other to pieces with their fists and teeth. Arms and legs were twisted until they were useless, and rivals were left to die of their injuries. Sometimes they made spears, and Jane is convinced that they would have killed each other with firearms if they’d had them.
She also saw how females ate each other’s young to increase the chances of their own, and she was able to document the first prolonged warfare among nonhuman primates.
“I was shocked. I had thought that chimpanzees were kinder than humans. When I saw these brutal attacks, I realized that they were even more like us than I’d previously thought, but in a sad way. I saw that, just like us, they have a dark side,” she says sadly and drops her gaze.
Today science has confirmed Jane Goodall’s discoveries. What we previously thought was ours alone has been proved to exist in several other species, and DNA research has resulted in new findings that place chimpanzees even nearer humans in the evolutionary chain.
We know that chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror – that is, conceive an “I” that is separate from an “other.” That they can plan in advance and that their intricate social networks stretch over several generations.
And ten years ago, Jane Goodall together with other prominent chimpanzee researchers could show that our nearest relatives also have traditions and culture – something that for a long time has been considered to be uniquely human.
“Now they even use computers,” says Jane. “There’s a female called Ai (The Japanese word for love) in Japan who carries out tasks, much like a computer game, faster than many people do. And if she doesn’t manage it quickly enough, she wants to redo it.”
But then, in 1961, the academic elite was skeptical, to say the least. Jane Goodall’s procedures were highly controversial – the fact that she named the chimpanzees and attributed “human” attributes like feelings and personalities caused the established researchers to snort. And it didn’t help much that it was a young woman, without any academic background, who had made the findings.
To give Jane more credibility, Leakey sent her off to Cambridge. She went straight into a doctorate, and is one of the few people who have been admitted without a previous bachelor’s degree.
At university she was harassed by her colleagues.
“It was frightening. The researchers said that I’d done everything wrong.”
When Jane submitted her thesis, her supervisor changed all the “he”s and “she”s to “it.” She immediately changed them back.
When I ask her if she never doubted her conviction about chimpanzees’ emotional-lives, she shakes her head.
How could you be so sure of it?
“Because of my dog!”
She says it as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“Rusty, the dog I grew up with, taught me it when I was little, so I just knew. You can’t live in a meaningful way with an animal without understanding that they have personalities, thoughts, and feelings. Why should we be the only ones who have it? It’s not logical,” she says, and shrugs her shoulders.
Many critics claim that your intimate relationships with animals have made you partisan as a researcher. She shakes her head again and smiles.
“If you don’t have a good relationship with animals, I don’t believe you can really understand them. And if you don’t use your intuition, especially when involved with something as close to us as apes, I think that you miss an important part of the research.”
You don’t seem to have been driven by achieving academic status – what drove you?
“I certainly wanted to be a good researcher, but on my own terms. I wanted to make Louis and my mother proud of me. I certainly enjoyed my academic studies and I needed knowledge about hormonal effects on behavior, for example, to write my books, but did it drive me? No. I was driven by a desire to understand chimpanzees’ behavior better, for my own sake. And now I’m driven by a wish to make the world a little better.”
Jane soon had a chance to dispel rumors flourishing in the academic world that she had actually fabricated her reports on the lives of chimpanzees. In 1963 the Dutch photographer Hugo van Lawick began to document her work for National Geographic.
He had heard rumors about the jungle woman accused of embellishing animal stories. But their symbiosis in the wilderness grew into love.
“He had been with me into some of the wild, secret places where, I had thought, no other white person would ever tread. Together we had roasted in the sun and shivered under polythene in the rain,” she wrote in one of her books.
National Geographic sent a film-team to make a documentary film about the couple’s idyllic existence in the rainforest, how they bathed in their own canvas-bathtubs beside each other in the evenings and scrubbed each other’s backs.
“It was fabulous,” says Jane when she thinks back to those years in Gombe.
Soon a son was born, called Hugo after his father. His first sentence was, “That big lion is coming to eat me up.” He himself has talked about the aggressive males in his baby memories, and decided early on that he didn’t like chimpanzees.
“One day they tried to get into his playpen. They had got used to us big “white apes,” but they just saw him as a tasty morsel” relates Jane on the moment she realized that they couldn’t live in the middle of these wild animals anymore.
The family moved to a house beside the water, outside the capital Dar es-Salaam, where Hugo junior got home-schooled by Jane.
“If there’s something I’ve learnt from chimpanzees, it’s how important the relationship between mother and child is. It became clearer and clearer that there are good and bad mothers, and that the young of those mothers who were playful, patient and protective – but not overprotective – had better relationships and higher status in the group as adults. This knowledge made me devote every afternoon to my son. He wasn’t away from me for a single night in those first three years,” she says.
The articles and books that the Goodall-Lawick pairing produced were an enormous success all over the world. Everyone wanted to learn more about our nearest relatives in the animal world and, through them, about themselves.
Their book, In the Shadow of Man, was a bestseller, and was translated into 15 languages.
The train sways, food and drink-sellers scramble to the front in the corridor, shout about coffee and sandwiches. Jane doesn’t want anything. She has “never been especially interested in food.”
The women in her Italian retinue look at me and make beheading gestures. It’s time to round things off.
In the afternoon Jane is going to an exhibition of t-shirts designed by Prada and other Italian fashion houses on behalf of her charity. And, before we meet again at the award ceremony at the British embassy, “she must also have time to rest,” the strict Italians have said.
Jane leans forward and looks at my notes, asks how many questions I have left, and then asks that they give us a while longer.
This is how she lives now; interviews, lectures, and meetings with policy makers. She only manages to visit Gombe twice a year.
In between she amuses herself by running up the down-escalator, clearing hotel room mini-bars of whisky and chocolate, and counting money from the collection boxes.
“I think it’s fun.”
She has lived alone for a long time. She divorced Hugo van Lawick after ten years. When I ask her which things she regrets, their break-up is one of the few.
“For my son’s sake,” she says sadly.
Her second husband, Derek Bryceson, who was a member of the Tanzanian parliament and director of Tanzania’s national parks, died of cancer after only five years of marriage.
In her autobiography she described how when she was little she was strongly Christian, and dreamed of becoming a martyr. And you can wonder if the dream hasn’t come true.
You’ve sacrificed a lot for this – does it sometimes feel like you’re sitting in a cage yourself?
“More like a treadmill. I have sacrificed my private life. Yesterday at Heathrow three different people came up and asked ‘Are you Jane Goodall?’ And in Milan a man said that he’d interviewed me in New York and seemed to think that I’d remember exactly who he was! I didn’t, of course.”
Jane Goodall is a rock star of the science world and her fame has echoed many times through popular culture.
When Michael Jackson wanted help with his chimp Bubbles, he invited Jane to Neverland, and her accounts of chimpanzees threatened with extinction inspired him to write “Heal the World.”
Stevie Nicks has paid tribute to her with the song “Jane,” and she’s been parodied in series like The Simpsons and Flapjack.
One of cartoonist Gary Larson’s most famous cartoons shows two chimpanzees grooming each other. One finds a blond hair on the other, and asks him if he’s conducting “’research’ with that Jane Goodall tramp?” The Jane Goodall Institute forced him to apologize, but Jane herself revealed that she thought the joke was “really funny.” It ended in her writing a preface to one of his books and, in 1988, Larson visited her research station in Gombe.
This is how she works – by passing her message on to all those who can pass it on further.
This train journey is an example of how her life has looked since 1986 when, in connection with a chimpanzee research conference, she made a shocking discovery.
“When I flew over Gombe and looked down, I saw that all the forest that grew around the area was gone, there were only bare hills. Clearly more people were living there than the land could cope with.”
The external threats to her paradise gradually became too big to ignore. The local population in the area was growing and also becoming poorer, devastating the rich rainforest to make more room.
It was becoming easier for poachers to get into the chimpanzees’ natural home and kill everything that moved, in order to then dry and sell the chimpanzee meat, considered an expensive delicacy.
Jane saw how the indigenous tribes, who had lived in the same way for thousands of years, were being corrupted by the loggers who gave them money to hunt game.
The lectures at the conference painted an even clearer picture of the devastation. A hundred years ago, there’d been two million chimpanzees spread over 21 African countries, in a wide rainforest stretching from the west coast to Tanzania in the east. Today only 250,000 chimpanzees remain and the deforestation has isolated them in small forest-fragments where they are no longer in genetic contact with each other.
The collapse of mankind’s nearest living relative is close.
This insight led Jane to found the Jane Goodall Institute, which works on several projects to engage populations to protect their own environment.
The program aims to give communities the tools to manage their natural resources in the long-term.
The local population starts small, environmentally-friendly, sustainable enterprises with the aid of micro loans from locally-run banks. They learn to reduce their need for fire-wood and are educated about family-planning and HIV prevention. And they receive information about the latest methods of cultivation that require less space.
Tree-nurseries are also built where the local population are engaged in getting the rainforest to grow again.
“We succeeded in persuading the EU to finance a pilot project in twelve villages, and it paid off. We improved people’s lives in many ways. Then we could increase it to 32 villages.”
When Jane illustrates the project’s successes, she lights up like a child. She borrows my pen and draws how they have succeeded in planting a forest corridor that puts the scattered chimpanzee groups in contact with each other, and therefore protects them from dying out.
“Five years after we’d started I could look down on those hills that were bare, and see them now covered by high trees.”
How did you succeed in getting the local population to cooperate?
“It was very difficult. They were struggling just to survive, one day at a time. But we had a Tanzanian team that asked questions and listened to them. And rather than going in and saying “We have come to the conclusion that you are very poor, and this is how we’ll help you,” we had their own people ask them “What are you biggest problems, and how can we help you?”
Jane Goodall is convinced that the key to accelerating humanity’s moral evolution lies with the young. In 1991, therefore, she started Roots & Shoots, an international program to educate high school students about environmental and human rights issues.
Today, Roots & Shoots has 9,000 registered youth groups all over the world, who investigate the needs of their own environment and come up with their own relief projects. All the groups are connected in an international network, where they can communicate and learn from each other’s experiences.
The Jane Goodall Institute’s development program for the local population has been recognized as among the best in the world. The World Bank, the Gates Foundation and the EU are now looking at ways to develop it, so it can be used in other countries.
But the private cost is high. Because, in order to get policy makers, the local population, and the world’s youth on her side Jane travels constantly between seminars and public appearances.
How long can you keep going like this?
“That depends on my health. But I’m sure that I’ll travel like this until I no longer can. And I hope that my brain is still okay and my hands don’t stiffen up; because when I can’t travel anymore, I must write more,” she says and looks down at her old fingers. One of her thumbs is missing a tip – bitten off long ago by a chimpanzee in a laboratory.
Several times she has doubted mankind’s goodwill, our common future, and our innermost nature.
She has been forced face to face with mankind’s dark side, visiting laboratories where chimpanzees were held captive in small cages and injected with deadly viruses for medical research. She has worked actively to abolish these medical tests, and several times been able to prove that they aren’t as effective as has been thought.
“I talk a lot about the similarities between us and chimpanzees, but we humans are different. The big difference is the explosive development of our human intellect. We have learnt to talk and can have discussions. But if we’re the most intellectual creature on this planet, then why are we destroying it?
Her questioning is justified. The name of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, means ‘man who knows that he knows.’
Before we have to leave the train, Jane leans forward and poses for the camera with Mr H, the ape that she got from a blind magician. He has been with her in 59 countries and been petted by nearly three million people, including Kofi Annan.
“I believe that we’ve lost something that I call wisdom,” she says. “Indigenous people think about future generations. Today we think about the next board meeting.”
Despite this she is hopeful.
She is inspired by the biophysicist and philosopher Pierre Lecomte du Noüy and believes in moral evolution. Du Noüy was convinced that humanity will become less aggressive and warlike, and more thoughtful and compassionate.
“I have studied chimpanzees, I have held fragments of bone from our earliest ancestors in my hands,” she says. “I know where we’ve painstakingly developed from over millions of years, and I know which way we’re going. The problem is that time is running out. We have a knife to our throats. And that’s why we ordinary people must become saints, or at least ‘mini saints.’”
It’s now a fall evening in Rome. Brightly polished cars glide up to the British ambassador’s residence. The building sits on a hillside and resembles the mystical palace in the film Eyes Wide Shut.
In the immense rooms, woody research-types with sandals and back-packs mingle with chic Italian ladies. Perfume hangs heavy in the air.
The woman that everyone’s waiting for sneaks in quietly, modestly clad in trousers with an African shawl over her thin shoulders.
But her presence fills the entire room. Scientists, policy makers, and environmental and animal-rights activists draw her in and, with quiet patience, she converses with the same establishment that once dismissed her as “National Geographic’s cover girl.”
The ceremony begins.
After an address on the threat to the earth’s forests (13 million hectares, an area as large as Greece, is cut-down annually) the British ambassador, Christopher Prentice, presents “one of history’s most credible scientists.”
“It is a great honor and I am very proud, but if I was a chimpanzee I would say it differently. They are a little more expressive,” says Jane in her acceptance speech.
She breaks out in a loud chimpanzee cry and turns to the president’s consigliere to give him a hug.
When the children’s choir have sung Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Jane attaches herself to the young crowd. They are her allies now. She understood a long time ago that it’s them who will save not just the chimpanzees, but us all.
Before I return to the hotel, I happen to overhear the British ambassador in conversation.
“We all need to be a little more like her,” he says. “A little braver.”