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Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010
Researcher Goodall doesn't monkey around
By ERIKO ARITA
Jane Goodall, indisputably one of the world's foremost authorities on chimpanzees and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute for wildlife research and conservation, was in Japan last month as a part of the institute's celebration of her 50th anniversary of pioneering chimpanzee research in Tanzania.
During her stay, the 76-year-old primatologist visited Yokohama International School and talked about the fieldwork she undertook in her younger days, chimpanzees and the institute's program for youth.
Goodall started her speech to an excited young audience assembled in the school's gymnasium by saying that although she strives constantly to reach people in many countries, she would love it if she could speak different languages.
"But I do know one language that I can share with you," she told the crowd. "It's the greeting you would hear if you came with me to Gombe National Park in Tanzania and climbed up the hills in the morning, hoping to hear the chimpanzees greeting the day: 'Hoo, hoo, hohohohohohooh! Hooh! Hoooh! Hello!' "
Goodall's monkeying around drew loud cheers from the 500 students present.
The researcher then talked about her childhood in England. At 10, she said, she read "Tarzan of the Apes" and had a dream of living with wild animals in Africa. However, those were different times. Africa was known as the "dark continent," World War II was raging across Europe, and women had different roles in society.
"The worst problem I had to face at that time was that I had the wrong sex," she explained, saying that "back then in the U.K. girls didn't do that sort of thing." Only her mother supported her, she said, recalling how "she would say, 'If you really want something, and you work hard and you take advantage of the opportunities, and you never give up, you (can) find the way.
"And that is the message I want to share with you young people here," she proclaimed.
When she graduated from high school, Goodall told how she took a secretarial course before being invited to Kenya by a friend whose parents had a farm there. To save money to make the trip — which in those days was by ship — she worked as a waitress before setting off on her adventure at the age of 23.
In Kenya, Goodall met world- renowned anthropologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, who was researching fossils of humankind's Stone Age ancestors in the Serengeti plains and was looking for somebody to study chimpanzees — our closest living relatives — in Tanzania. Leakey sensed Goodall's avid interest in animals and asked her to go and learn about the chimps.
"And of course it was beyond my wildest dreams," Goodall said. "First of all, who would give money to this young girl with no university degree?"
A year later, Leakey found a wealthy American businessman prepared to fund Goodall's research for six months. However, the authorities were not prepared to take responsibility for a young woman venturing into potentially dangerous forests alone.
Leakey wouldn't give up and eventually authorities relented, but they had one condition: Goodall must travel with a companion. Who was that companion? The students listened intently as the researcher revealed the answer: "My amazing mother."
In July 1960, Goodall and her mother arrived in Gombe, western Tanzania — a known chimpanzee habitat — and camped out in the forests.
Then, every morning, Goodall would climb into the mountains and spend whole days trying to get close enough to the chimps to study their behavior.
"Day after day after day, I was getting a little bit closer to the chimpanzees, but they ran away because they had never seen a 'white ape' before," Goodall said, explaining how desperate she felt to make closer contact. However, with her mother's unflagging encouragement, Goodall gradually learned more and more about their diets and how they travel and interact in small groups.
Then, in autumn 1960 — shortly after her mother left Gombe — Goodall made a breakthrough observation.
As she walked through the undergrowth that day, she recounted, she saw a chimpanzee she'd named David Greybeard, because of his white facial hair.
"I spied the chimpanzee, which turned out to be David, crouched over a termite mound. I saw a hand reach out and pick a piece of grass and I saw the grass pushed into the termite mound, left for a moment and then slowly pulled out. Then, David picked the termites (off it) with his lips," Goodall said.
She also saw him pick a leafy twig and strip the leaves off, making a tool to "fish" for the termites.
"It was thought at that time that only humans were capable of making and using tools," she said. "And so when I showed (pictures of) David using and making tools to Louis Leakey, that enabled him to go to the National Geographic Society of America and get money for me to continue to study."
The discovery couldn't have come at a better time. The original six-month funding from the U.S. businessman was starting to run out. Taking this news to National Geographic would in essence secure the team's funding for the duration of their research.
After the observation, Goodall said that David effectively introduced her to the other chimpanzees in his group — enabling her to become the first Western person ever to enter that other great ape's world.
Often smiling, and speaking in a quiet and friendly tone of voice, the primatologist emphasized how alike humans and chimpanzees are. Biologically, chimpanzees are closer to humans than they are to other great apes, she explained, and because the DNA of humans and chimpanzees differs by only a little more than 1 percent, chimps can intellectually do things that humans formerly thought only they could do.
"Chimpanzees show many of the gestures that we use in our daily lives. They kiss, embrace, hold hands, give pats on the back and show angry faces," Goodall said. "It's the chimpanzees who are like us in so many ways that helps us to prove that we are really part of wonderful animal kingdom out there."
While Goodall focused on researching chimpanzee behavior and society for more than two decades, she left Gombe after 1986 when she attended an international congress of chimpanzee researchers and learned that the population of chimps had declined to 300,000 from 2 million in 1960. At the congress, the researchers showed slides of destroyed forests, chimpanzees caught in wire snares and others shot along with many other animals for "bush meat."
"So these amazing chimpanzees who help us to understand our precious nature are disappearing," Goodall said. "Human populations are growing and the forests are being cut down."
The tone in the room took a more serious, and broader, turn as Goodall pointed out that in many rural areas in Africa, humans too are suffering — mainly due to severe poverty, a problem that plagues many developing countries around the world. Meanwhile, people in developed countries have unsustainable lifestyles, which are damaging the global environment, Goodall warned.
It was this concern for the environment as a whole that prompted the creation of the "Roots and Shoots" program for young people at the Jane Goodall Institute in 1991. She explained that in every Roots and Shoots group, children choose three kinds of projects to make the world better: one that will benefit people, one that will benefit animals, and one contributing to a better environment for all.
Finally, with a warm smile, Goodall asked the students, "Do you want to help us change the world to be a better place?" The students responded in unison, "Yes!"
After her speech, the researcher took questions from the students.
"I want to help. What can I start by doing?" asked one girl.
Goodall said she would love it if the girl joined Roots and Shoots, adding that she could also help chimpanzees by joining a guardian program for the creatures. "You and your friends raise the money and you get a picture of one of the chimps," Goodall said, explaining how the program works. "Their mothers were shot for food. We look after the orphans and it takes a lot of money."
A boy then raised his hand and asked, "Would you also help the other apes?"
Goodall said her institute's staff are helping the other apes, too. To save the chimps, she explained, the staff have to save the forests and work with the people living in those areas in poverty to improve their lives. As a result, she said, "They eventually turn around and help us restore the forests that have been cut down. And through saving the forests, we are saving all the other creatures that live in the forests, too," she said.
After her speech in Yokohama, Goodall was off to give another lecture in Tokyo before heading to Kyoto to speak at the Congress of the International Primatological Society.
According to the Jane Goodall Institute, she spends 300 days a year traveling the world to talk to students, government officials or the media about chimpanzees and conservation issues — but she still manages to get back to Gombe at least twice a year, to "recharge her batteries" and see her beloved chimps.