The Heart Of The Jungle
By Kit GilletNovember 9, 2012
Jane Goodall left secretarial school, moved in with the chimps and revolutionised the conservation movement. At 78, her field work is different — and more urgent.
Hair pulled in a tight ponytail that highlights every line on her face, 78-year-old environmental campaigner Jane Goodall looks thoroughly worn out. Shawl draped loosely around her delicate shoulders, a small tumbler of whiskey in her hand, she admits, “At the end of most days I feel totally exhausted.”
She is in a hotel lounge in Shanghai, just off a plane from Hong Kong; she spends some 300 days a year on the road, and has done for the past quarter of a century. “Since 1986 I haven’t been anywhere for more than three weeks at a stretch, except when I hurt my ankles,” she says.
Goodall spends most of her time in hotels in big cities around the world, giving lectures, talking to school groups and meeting with fundraisers — sharing with as many people as possible her stories of living in the forests with the chimpanzees, and passing on her concerns about the state of the planet.
The message is always the same: that we need to correct the damage humankind has done to this world, before it is too late.
Jane Goodall on "Hope"
“Our brains are the things that differentiate us from chimps. Yet our amazing intellect has done so much damage,” she tells me, between sips of whiskey.
When Goodall starts talking, the passion in her eyes and the welcoming smile instantly recall many of the hundreds of photographs taken of her over the past 50 years.
In person, her body seems much more fragile than in those images, as if it is gradually acknowledging that it can’t go on defying time indefinitely. But Goodall is determined to use all her remaining strength to push on with her environmental mission.
“Roots & Shoots is what I dedicate my life to. It is changing lives all over the world,” she says, referring to the youth-focused environmental organisation she formed back in 1991.
Now with a presence in 131 countries, Roots & Shoots has tens of thousands of volunteers, and every year corporate sponsors around the world contribute resources to help make Goodall’s vision a reality. Yet at the centre of it is this one small woman.
Goodall began her working life with secretarial qualifications. “I had no money for university, so I went to secretary school instead. Then I went to Africa; I set off at 23, and everything went from there,” she says.
Despite entering the field with no higher education, she was, from her mid-20s, at the forefront of shaping a new understanding of one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom: the chimpanzee. Gone was the idea of humankind as the only toolmaker in the animal kingdom.
Goodall became widely recognised in the 1960s, as a primatologist who had spent years living among the chimpanzees of East Africa. In Goodall, the environmental and conservation world gained a passionate and strong-willed public personality.
She was a glamorous figure in a field dominated by old white men, and she made her data immediately accessible by giving each of the chimpanzees she was studying a name and telling stories of their behaviour and personalities. She wrote books — including In The Shadow of Man and The Chimpanzee Family Book, aimed at younger readers — gained acclaim for her work, appeared in many TV shows and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2004. (She also finished a Ph.D. in ethology in 1965 without ever getting a Bachelor’s degree).
It was at the time when her career as a primatologist was really reaping rewards that she noticed that something fundamental to her work was changing.
“I suddenly realised that across Africa chimpanzees were disappearing, forests were going,” she says, of events that happened in 1986. “The other animals and people were suffering too. This was all at one conference.
“I went to the conference as a scientist. I mean, my life was perfect; I was out in the forest learning about the chimpanzees, analysing the data, doing a bit of teaching at Stanford University, building up a research station — it was a dream life. I left the conference as an activist. Since that moment in 1986 I haven’t been anywhere for more than three weeks at a stretch.”
By then, Goodall had already set up the Jane Goodall Institute, an international wildlife- and environment-conservation organisation, but in 1991 she established the first Roots & Shoots in Tanzania, together with a group of young students.
Goodall’s second husband had died of cancer in 1980 (her first marriage ended in an amicable divorce in 1974), and with her only son grown up she adopted the nomadic lifestyle she still follows today. Between trips, she returns to the house she grew up in southern England, and which she shares with her sister. “She lives in it with her family and I am a bird of passage; it’s my roosting spot between trips,” says Goodall.
Her arrival in Shanghai had coincided with the conclusion of a local Roots & Shoots project — the planting of a million trees on the edge of the desert in northern China to help stop the spread of the sands.
Over the past six years, thousands of volunteers have travelled to the barren landscape to plant the trees, with the result that the project was completed two years ahead of schedule. Roots & Shoots collaborators have already started work on the next million.
It’s an evocative example of what Goodall has tried to achieve in the second half of her life and, for her, a clear sign of what can be accomplished.
“The biggest challenge we have is persuading young and old that small does make a difference,” she tells me.
“At this very dire time, when we are [environmentally] close to a point of no return, something is being pulled forth from young people; they are increasingly wise beyond their years.”
In Shanghai for just five days, Goodall is set to talk to dozens of different groups in what would be a gruelling timetable for someone half her age. On this first night she is subdued, as if marshalling her strength, but a few days later I get to see what she is like in front of crowds.
At a breakfast meeting in a dimly lit room on the top floor of a five-star hotel, she tells a group of Western corporate executives that: “There is hope if we all roll up our sleeves and get involved.”
Later in the day she stands tall behind a lectern in a large glass hall, giving a 40-minute, off-the-cuff speech. Starting with a joyously loud “ou, ou, ou, ah, ah, ah, AH AH”, a typical chimpanzee greeting, she quickly segues to her main messages: “When I meet children today and I think of how we, the earlier generations, have damaged the world it makes me very angry,” she tells the crowd of a few hundred Chinese office workers. Her talk is also filled with stories of chimpanzees, and exhortations for those listening to get up and help make a difference.
Many in the front few rows are wearing bright green Roots & Shoots T-shirts, while others cradle books in their arms — books Goodall wrote decades ago which they hope she will sign afterwards.
“People see Jane’s passion,” says Tori Zwisler, the chairman of Shanghai Roots & Shoots, who is accompanying Goodall on this tour.
“She is a great motivator, a wonderful speaker. She has ways to connect with people, to tell them stories that motivate and move them, and make them think. Just listening to her talk is inspiring and motivational, regardless of whether you know her history or not.”
Most in the crowd clearly do know her story.
Goodall’s talk continues: “People now think, instead ofm ‘How will this affect future generations’, [they think] ‘How will this affect me now, or the next shareholder’s meeting, or the next political campaign?’ We’ve lost something.”
In the car between events Goodall slumps down in her seat, as if she can only muster energy for those moments when she is on a stage, acting as the spokeswoman for the environment.
“Tell me your story. I’m tired of talking and just want to listen for a while,” she says to me.
While I talk, she curls up on her seat, wrapped tightly in a shawl and wearing sunglasses to protect her damaged, sensitive eyes from the sun.
Throughout the day, and with every group she meets, Goodall repeats a few key messages as if they are personal mantras: the idea of the power of nature to survive and replenish, and of the indomitable human spirit within all of us.
“I don’t like giving up — I never give up,” she tells me at one point.
Goodall used to visit Asia every year, but now, with new Roots & Shoots popping up in Latin America and across the globe, there aren’t enough days in the year to pay an annual visit to every outpost of the organisation. So she visits only every other year, and tries to engage remotely the rest of the time.
“I try to make use of every minute of the day. If I drop down dead tomorrow, I know that there would be young people to carry it on.”
At the last stop of the day, a presentation in front of groups of children from twenty of Shanghai’s international schools, Goodall is visibly tiring.
She sits alone in a quiet room away from the stage while the students and teachers take their seats and watch an introductory video about Roots & Shoots.
For most of her life she has tried to persuade others of the beauty of the animal kingdom and that it is not too late to save the planet. She has dedicated much of her life to this cause.
As she slowly makes her way to the stage she passes by photographs of a blond-haired younger version of herself, smiling and engaging with the chimpanzees.
Looking out over the young crowd, she smiles again: “Thank you all. Now, let me bring it back to where it all began for me…”