On July 4, 1960, 26-year-old Jane Goodall arrived at Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania to study the behavior of chimpanzees. Through her accounts of the drama-filled lives of Fifi, David Greybeard and other chimps, she showed that these apes share many traits previously thought to be unique to humans. These days the 76-year-old Goodall works to save endangered chimps and their habitats. Scientific American recently reached Goodall by phone in Hong Kong, where she was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of her work in Gombe. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow.
Scientific American: When you first arrived at Gombe, what were your preconceptions about chimpanzees?
Goodall: I was expecting chimpanzees to be highly intelligent, but as for how they lived in the wild or what their social structure was, nobody knew much about that.
What about their behavior most surprised you?
The most significant thing is how incredibly like humans they are. Many people were really surprised by the fact that they made and used tools. That didn’t surprise me particularly, because German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler had reported that they use tools readily in captivity. But it was exciting to observe this behavior in the wild, along with hunting and food sharing, because it enabled us to get money to carry on with our research.
What came as a shock to me is that, like us, they have a very dark side, and they’re capable of violent brutality, even war. Communities will engage in a sort of primitive warfare that appears to be over territory. Perhaps even more shocking are the attacks on newborn babies by females in the same community.
What sets the human mind apart from the chimp mind?
The explosive development of intellect. You can have very bright chimps that can learn sign language and do all kinds of things with computers, but it doesn’t make sense to compare that intellect with even that of a normal human, let alone an Einstein. My own feeling is that the evolution of our intellect quickened once we began using the kind of language we use today, a language that enables us to discuss the past and to plan the distant future.
How are chimpanzees faring in the wild?
They’re not doing well at all. The main threats vary from place to place, but in most locations the biggest problem is the loss of their forests. In the Congo Basin, where the main chimp populations exist, the illegal commercial bushmeat trade is another threat, and that’s pretty grim. Chimpanzees can also catch many of our infectious diseases, so as logging companies make roads deeper into the forest, the animals are more at risk.
What is being done now to protect chimps?
In Tanzania the Jane Goodall Institute started a program called TACARE (“Take Care”), which is improving the lives of the local villagers by helping to alleviate poverty, so they now want to support our efforts to protect the forest. They understand the importance of conserving water by not cutting the trees down. Gombe is very tiny, but it now has a buffer of green growing all the way around the park where once there were bare hills. We have the beginnings of corridors moving out to other tropical forests with small groups of chimps in them. We have no idea if the animals will use these corridors, but at least we’re giving them the option.
Another development is the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative, a funding mechanism that could direct money from carbon trading to communities that can prove they are protecting their forests. With grant money we received from the Royal Norwegian Embassy of Tanzania this year, we are helping communities to participate in REDD by, among other things, working with Google Earth Outreach to train local people to use the Android smartphone and other technologies to collect carbon data and monitor their forests.
What have been your most significant contributions?
Breaking down this perceived sharp line between us and other creatures. I think chimpanzees have helped people understand that we are part of and not separated from the animal kingdom, and that has opened the way to having respect for the other amazing beings with whom we share the planet.
Young people everywhere need to realize that what we do individually every day does make a difference. If everybody begins thinking of the consequences of the little choices they make—what they eat, what they wear, what they buy, how they get from A to B—and acting accordingly, these millions of small changes will create the kinds of larger changes we must have if we care at all for our children. This is why I’m on the road 300 days a year talking to groups of youths as well as adults, politicians and businesses—because I don’t think we’ve got that much time left.