Jane Goodall: On a crusade

By Suzanne McFadden

becoming an octogenarian has only ramped up Jane Goodall’s globe-trekking schedule, because there’s far too much to be done to pause for a breather. She talks to Suzanne McFadden ahead of her first Auckland visit .

Dr.Jane Goodall with orphan chimpanzee Uruhara at the Sweetwaters Sanctuary in Kenya. Photo / Michael Neugebauer
Dr.Jane Goodall with orphan chimpanzee Uruhara at the Sweetwaters Sanctuary in Kenya. Photo / Michael Neugebauer

I don't want to be the one to break it to Dr Jane Goodall; even if I was the one who suggested it in the first place.

She would love, one day, to meet a black robin, the world-famous little bird from the Chatham Islands rescued from extinction by Goodall's New Zealand friend and fellow conservationist, the late Don Merton.

When she revealed that this was her favourite of all animals saved from the brink, and a constant source of inspiration, I eagerly - and naively, on reflection - told her that she might, in fact, get to see an elusive black robin when she visits Auckland Zoo later this month.

"Oh, that would be nice," she said in her gentle, dignified English timbre over the phone from Sydney. On reflection, she sounded a little sceptical.

Because of course, there are no little black robins at the zoo, or anywhere on the New Zealand mainland. The 250 that exist today - a vast improvement from the five alive in 1980 - only dwell in predator-free sanctuaries on the Chathams.

So when she makes her first trip to Auckland, Goodall will have to be content with cuddling a tuatara, or a close encounter with a brazen kea. I don't imagine that Goodall will mind greatly. She doesn't play favourites these days, even if much of her 80 years have been devoted to chimpanzees.

Armed with only a notebook and binoculars, the Englishwoman redefined the world's perception of primates - and people - through decades of trailblazing research in the forests of Tanzania. And now she is a roving crusader for change.

She spends 300 days of the year travelling the globe, campaigning for the protection of animals and the environment. For the first time, a New Zealand tour is on her agenda. Did I mention she's 80, and she treks around the world alone?

Even on her arduous tour schedule - which she describes as "horrible" - she won't stop for a rest during long days tightly threaded with public talks, interviews, zoo and school visits. On suggesting she might fancy a little lie down after our mid-afternoon chat, she says with mock exasperation: "I won't do that. I can't! How would I keep up with about 200 emails a day? I've got 28 Jane Goodall Institutes around the world, and there are always problems to be solved, questions to be answered."

In the past month - while on the road in Australia and Bali - Goodall has called for a worldwide ban on the sale of African elephant ivory, chastised the Vancouver Aquarium for its continued captivity of whales and dolphins and implored Air France to stop transporting monkeys for medical research.

Across the ditch, she criticised the Australian Govern-ment's poor record on climate change control, urging it to put limits on industrial emissions, and told Australians they needed a "wake-up call" in caring for their unique native creatures.

"Unfortunately, everything I read about Australia and its record in caring for the environment is not particularly good right now," Goodall told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I know that a lot of animal species are facing extinction, particularly the mammals." New Zealanders may come in for a similar dressing-down when Goodall is here for her three-city whistle-stop tour, starting next Friday.

When I spoke with her she was still focused on the troubles in Australia - where feral cats kill 75 million native animals each night. "Hopefully, someone will fill me in on the key problems in New Zealand before I get there."

That's the trouble when you live out of a suitcase, opening it in a different country almost every week. Goodall insists on travelling alone - except, that is, for her constant companions, Mr H and Cow.

Mr H is a soft toy monkey, gifted to Goodall by her friend Gary Haun, who lost his sight serving with the US Marines but became a professional magician and adventurer. "Mr H [the monkey] has visited more than 60 countries and been touched by four million people," she says. Apparently some of the inspiration Mr H gives Goodall will rub off on those who pat him. Cow, given to her in Wisconsin, is now a "spokesperson for abused farm animals". (Goodall, incidentally, is vegetarian.)

Researcher Jane Goodall spent countless hours hidden in the vegetation, observing the chimps through binoculars. Photo / Hugo Van Lawick

The teams that work on the ground to arrange her visits are working pro-bono. Money raised goes to help Jane Goodall Institute causes and campaigns.

"Every year it's the same - an entire year of touring with a few days off in England, which is home, in between," Goodall says. "Only this year is a little bit worse."

The exhaustive touring this year is on account of her milestone birthday. She began 2014 in Africa, then crossed the United States and Canada, visited four European countries before heading Downunder, and will fly to Nepal after her New Zealand stop. She will spend a few days in Tanzania, visiting her Gombe Stream Research Centre - home to the world's most studied troop of wild chimpanzees - before Burundi and Uganda. And then she has most of August off, at the family home called The Birches near Bournemouth, where all her books and her sister reside. "So that's pretty good," she says, almost wearily.

She has been blessed with a robust constitution. She sits with a straight back, her long, silver hair scraped back and gathered at the nape of her neck, the same carefree hairstyle she had as a young woman in Gombe.

"I seem to have luckily inherited my father's genes," she says. Her father, Mortimer, an engineer and race car driver, died at the age of 97; her novelist mother, Vanne - who encouraged Goodall's ventures into the wilds of east Africa - lived to 96.

So does the United Nations Messenger of Peace expect to roam the globe spreading messages of concern and hope for another couple of decades yet? "You never know, planes can crash at any second ..." she says.

She doesn't miss the thrill of discovery in working in the field following chimp behaviour; she doesn't have time to. But it's obvious she misses the chimps.

In the 1960s, Goodall was criticised by academia for giving the animals she studied human names, instead of numbers. And yet, they became household names, like David Greybeard, who used a stripped twig as a tool to fish for termites, and Gombe's matriarch Flo, who got her own obituary in The Times.

She visits the Gombe National Park twice a year, where researchers still monitor the local troop, but she no longer recognises the younger chimpanzees.

"Gremlin is the only old timer still alive and I probably still have a bond with her. When I see her, she certainly remembers me." Gremlin doesn't approach Goodall ... "They never did. We never encouraged them to approach us." And yet, a tender, tear-jerking hug from a rescued chimp, Wounda, earlier this year was one of the most poignant moments in Goodall's life.

Wounda - whose name means "close to dying" - was saved by staff at Goodall's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rescue Centre in the Republic of Congo. The centre has around 160 young chimps, whose mothers were killed for the illegal bush-meat trade.

Goodall was there when a recuperated Wounda was released to the new sanctuary of Tchindzoulou Island. Woman and chimp had never met before. But when her cage doors opened, Wounda turned to Goodall and held her in a long, warm embrace.

"It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had, definitely," she says. "The nature of the hug was so extraordinary." And the warmth continues - a video of the moment, played at Goodall's 80th birthday bash in San Francisco, inspired generous guests to donate enough money to release 160 chimps to the island.

"There's still so much to learn from chimps. We should be still learning about the different cultures in different parts of Africa. But so many chimps are vanishing, we can never ever learn the full extent of cultural variation, which is sad. But it's the same with human cultures, we're losing them so fast. I'm hearing again and again, the last member of the tribe, the last speaker of the language is gone."

Goodall is driven in this latest phase of her life by a wish to "leave something reasonable" for her great-great-grandchildren. She has three grand-children from her only child, Hugo "Grub" van Lawick.

"I don't think we have a huge window of time to start changing attitudes and behaviour," she says.

"When people feel so depressed and helpless, which the caring people do, they don't do anything. So my job is to motivate people to do their bit by giving them hope for the future. Hope based on getting enough people together to make change." Even she gets disheartened from time to time: "But I'm a pretty obstinate old bird, and I pick up again.

"The world has got considerably worse in my lifetime, but on the other hand, there's more awareness, more people caring I think. This is why it's so important to give these caring people a voice. It is like David fighting Goliath, the big corporations."

When I venture that there is no silver bullet to cure the planet's ills, she proposes there is one thing which everyone could do that "would make a big difference". And it's as simple as a thought.

"It's to spend a few minutes thinking about the choices you're making - what you buy, where it came from, how was it made? Did it harm the environment, did it involve cruelty to animals, sweatshops or child slave labour? Why is it so cheap; should we really save a little bit so we can buy something more ethically produced?

Jane Goodall with enthusiastic Roots & Shoots members in a village near Kigoma, Tanzania. Photo / Chase Pickering

"How do we treat people, and animals, each day? If we think that way I find that people can make change. When people realise their own small change, multiplied a couple of billion times, it is huge."

It's the message she will be expounding on her New Zealand tour. She's been here twice before, but she says she's only been to the South Island, where a long-lost cousin helped arrange her visits. She made a one-day visit to see frogs in Dunedin in 2011. This time, in Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland, she hopes to encourage full-house audiences to help adopt her Roots and Shoots youth programme here.

Goodall wants Roots and Shoots to be her legacy to the planet. An idea born in 1991 - on the back porch of her house in Dar es Salaam where she talked through the concerns of 12 Tanzanian teenagers - there are now 150,000 groups of young people in 136 countries, working to remedy local and global issues.

"They usually start in schools. Students talk about the things that bother them and choose three projects - one to help people, one to help animals and one to help the environment. It's grown so fast because they choose what grabs them," Goodall says.

Projects range from clearing streams of litter and raising funds for tsunami victims, to making toys for foster parrots.

Dr. Jane Goodall with Gombe chimpanzee Freud. Photo / Michael Neugebarger

"We're building Roots and Shoots, getting more and more young people involved, so they become the critical mass that understands that we need money to live, but shouldn't live for money," she says.

Goodall has set up her affairs so that when she does leave this maddening jungle, her vision will live on. Orphan chimps in the Congo will have a safe home; the next generation of mankind will be emboldened to make change.

"There will be several carry-ons from Jane, not just one person," she says.

"All of the Jane Goodall Institutes around the world will carry on, because they're not relying on me now."

For decades to come, Goodall will remain an expert on the world of primates through her papers, documentaries and books. Her latest tome, Seeds Of Hope, branches out into her love of the botanical world, and her suggestions for protecting plants and trees. She got tangled in a plagiarism controversy with the first edition of the book, later blaming her busy schedule and chaotic note taking.

The favourite childhood tree she named "Beech" still stands in The Birches today; it's where she first read Tarzan Of The Apes from cover to cover. Of course, she knows of our majestic kauri, she says, but has never seen one.

So, in lieu of a little robin, perhaps I can take her to meet a giant kauri.

Jane Goodall's New Zealand tour includes three talks: at the Regent Theatre in Dunedin on June 20 at 7pm; the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington on June 22 at 2pm; and the Aotea Centre in Auckland on June 23. Tickets to her Dunedin and Wellington talks were still available at the time of printing, however, her Auckland event, hosted by Auckland Zoo, has sold out.

Her new book, Seeds of Hope, is out now.To donate to the Jane Goodall Institute, visit janegoodall.org

- NZ Herald

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