How Jane Goodall Got Her Start

Tia, a female chimp
Tia, an adolescent female chimp, was a frequent tool user. Credit: Maja Gaspersic

Fifty years ago, primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall had her first encounters with the chimpanzees of the Gombe. Then a young researcher, Goodall observed wild chimpanzees in the Gombe making and using tools—a finding that changed the field of primate research dramatically. She joins us this hour for a conversation about about her work in studying chimpanzees, preserving habitats, and what lies ahead for the field of evolutionary science.

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Segment Guests

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall, DBE, is a founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and is a UN Messenger of Peace.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: To Jane Goodall, who’s there on the line. Hi, Jane. Are you there?

JANE GOODALL: I am here, yes indeed.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to meet you. Welcome back to “Science Friday.”

JANE GOODALL: Well, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: us– this is the– very famous time in your life. It’s the 50th anniversary that you went out first into the Gombe and did your research.

JANE GOODALL: Isn’t that amazing. Half a century. The actual date is the 14th of July this year, and I find it almost impossible to believe that that was 50 years ago. Wow.

IRA FLATOW: you remember that first day?

JANE GOODALL: I remember it vividly. I’ve thought about it often.

IRA FLATOW: us. Tell us about it. Tell us about it.

JANE GOODALL: Well, first of all, I’d been stuck– my mother was with me, because at that time Tanzania as it is today, it was still Tanganyika. It was a British protectorate. And the authorities refused to take responsibility for a young girl on her own. I no degree of any sort. I was straight out from England more or less. And so in the end they said all right, but she must have a companion. That was my mother, who volunteered to come.


JANE GOODALL: So we eventually drove in an overloaded Land Rover and got to Kigoma, which is the nearest little town on the edge of the lake. And lo and behold, what was then the Belgian Congo was in a state of revolution and the Belgians were fleeing over Lake Tanganyika. The town was absolutely flowing, overflowing with Congolese refugees.

Some of them had fled with nothing. Some were wounded. And so we got roped into looking after them. And it wasn’t until things had calmed down that I was allowed to actually set out on this historical journey in the government launch, with our little boat stowed away on the deck.

And going past the shoreline, which in those days was all thickly forested from Kigoma on going north along the lake, and looking at those forested slopes and valleys and thinking, how on Earth will I ever find the chimpanzees here at all? It was– another feeling was a sense of complete unreality could this be happening to me? Could my childhood dream be coming true?

IRA FLATOW: When did you have the first inkling that it might be coming true?

JANE GOODALL: I think it was when I had saved up my money– that was two years earlier– gone to Kenya, heard about the late Louis Leakey, went to see him at the Natural History Museum, of which he was curator. And he asked me questions about all the animals, stuffed animals and so forth, that were exhibited there. I think he was completely amazed that this young girl knew so much.

And so he offered me a job basically as his secretary really– because that’s what I’d done to save money. And I said, well, I’d love to take this job. I’d love to work here. But I have to get out and see something of the Africa I’ve saved up to learn about. And he allowed me to go with himself, his wife, and one other young English girl and just a few Kenyans to the now famous Olduvai Gorge, which is where many famous fossils of our earliest ancestors have been found.

But back then– that’s 1957– no human remains had been found, just the remains of prehistoric creatures, like prehistoric giraffes and so forth. So all of the animals were there. And when I was allowed out in the evening with [INAUDIBLE], out onto the plains around the gorge. There were lions and there were rhinos and there were all the antelopes and giraffe. And I was in my dream.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Jane Goodall this hour on “Science Friday” from NPR. Of course Jane needs really no introduction, but I will give her one. She is a UN Messenger of Peace. She’s founder of the Jane Goodall Institute in Arlington, Virginia. And her latest book is “Hope for Animals and Their World. How Endangered Species are being Rescued from the Brink.” And she is talking about her experiences 50 years ago, that first trip out into the Gombe.

I want to ask you more also about some current issues. You have since then turned your attention to other issues of importance in the world. What is at the top of your list now, Jane?

JANE GOODALL: I think the top of my list is the fact that everywhere I go there are– particularly young people– who seem to have lost hope for the future because of climate change, because of the threat of nuclear warfare, because of human population growth, because of scarcity of water, because of pollution. Different people latch onto different problems. And if we all lose hope, if our youth loses hope, then there’s really very little point in any of us trying to save anything. So that led to our youth program, Roots & Shoots. And of all our programs, that one is the most– to me– the most inspiring.

But at the same time protecting the Gombe chimpanzees and their forests, which means involving the local people, the people living around the National Park. Because if you don’t have their support, if they don’t become your partners, then there can be no sustainable conservation efforts of any sort. So that’s really important as well.

IRA FLATOW: And you speak about climate change too.

JANE GOODALL: Climate change. I was just in Copenhagen. I went to Copenhagen having been to Greenland and stood at the foot of this great ice cliff and heard the terrifying crack and then a thunderous roar as these huge slabs of ice crashed down. And watching the water flowing out from the base of this ice cliff where in the– 15, 20 years ago it never melted, even in the summer. And the Inuit elders I was with crying some of them, because they said their land was crying out in pain.

IRA FLATOW: I’m talking with Jane Goodall, and we’re going to continue our talk with her. She has many, many interests. She spent the last– as we all know, she spent the last 50 years studying primates in the wild in Gombe, and now she has branched out into other kinds of interests.

And we’re going to spend more time talking with her. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us. Send us a tweet @scifri, and you can reach us that way. 1-800-989-TALK. We’ll be right back after the short break with Jane Goodall.


IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is “Science Friday” from NPR. You’re listening to “Science Friday” from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Jane Goodall, UN Messenger of Peace, also founder of the Jane Goodall Institute in Arlington, Virginia, on a very famous anniversary this year, 50th anniversary of going into the Gombe with a pencil, a notebook, and a pair of binoculars. And– how has our image of what it means to be human changed in these last 50 years?

JANE GOODALL: I think it’s changed quite considerably. Because when I began, science believed and religion believed that there was a sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom– that there were differences not just of a degree but of kind, that had led to the human intellect and so forth.

And gradually over the years, from that very first significant observation of chimpanzees in the wild, not only using little bits of straw to fish for termites but actually making tools by taking leafy twigs and stripping the leaves to make them suitable to fish for termites– it’s a time when it was thought that humans and only humans used and made tools.

And from then on, more and more observations accumulated, not only from Gombe, but other chimpanzee sites began across Africa. And then there was research in captive groups. And it became very clear that that sharp line simply wasn’t there. It was a very fuzzy line– and that we were, yes, unique.

We are unique. Chimpanzees are unique. Dogs are unique. But we humans are just not as different as we used to think.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Susan in Flagstaff, Arizona. Hi, Susan. Hi. My name is Susan [INAUDIBLE] I think Jane knows the name [INAUDIBLE]


SUSAN GILLIERI: Yes. I’m married to Michael, who did some chimpanzee research– I guess not too long after you did.

JANE GOODALL: That’s right. In Uganda.

SUSAN GILLIERI: Yes, in Uganda. And my question was– your name and the work that you have been doing for so long is so critical, I think, to the survival of chimpanzees and African wildlife in general. When you don’t want to or feel like you can’t do this work anymore, have you been grooming a successor?

JANE GOODALL: Well, I’ve been grooming hundreds of successors. This youth program I mentioned, one of the exciting things to come from it is– first of all it involves young people from kindergarten right through university. It encourages them to think about the problems in the world around them and to choose three different hands-on projects to make things better for people, for animals, for the environment with the theme of learning to live in peace and harmony with each other and with the natural world.

And from this program, which is now in 120 countries with about 15,000 active groups, which is– average 30 kids per group, so that’s an awful lot of young people involved. And from this, we are growing Roots & Shoots youth leadership council. When you bring these young people together between 18 and 24 and hear them talking about some of the problems that we face today, social and environmental, just wish that every politician could be there listening.

And it’s very, very inspirational. So this is where my legacy will continue into the future, I believe.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Susan.


IRA FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Mark in St. Louis.

SPEAKER 1: Hi, Ira. Hi, Jane.


SPEAKER 1: Thanks for taking my call. I guess I want to follow up on the previous caller. And I am a passionate conservation biologist, and I teach the graduate level and the undergraduate level and the community college level. And what I find my students and myself grapple with is maintaining that hope for the future and not giving in to gloom and doom and pessimism– when we have population growth issues that may have already exceeded carrying capacity. We have global food shortages, and there’s no end of the negative stories.

So I am going to tune my students in to the Roots & Shoots program, and we do do service learning projects. Is there anything else that you would share with us to keep the hope alive?

JANE GOODALL: Well, I would encourage you to share also this new book that was mentioned. That’s “Hope for Animals and their World.” Because everywhere I go, you can imagine, I’m going to give a lecture to maybe a few thousand people. So all the local people who’ve got local problems, they all want me to mention the fact that the city council is trying to develop this piece of land and can you put in a good word for it, blah, blah, blah.

And so I know everywhere there are problems. But at the same time, I have the opportunity to meet the kind of extraordinary people that I’ve profiled in this book, who have decided that they’re not going to let something disappear. And they get a little following usually, and they carry on and they overcome obstacles. And they don’t give up, and they won’t give up. And this book is all those success stories from all around the world that– when I feel depressed, I just have to open that book and look at some of these species that but for those people would not be there.

IRA FLATOW: Is the mood around other parts of the world different than it is in the States here?

JANE GOODALL: It’s changing. I mean, I find– I spend a lot of time with youth, particularly universities, and I think the mood is very, very, very similar among young people around the world. It’s just that in some places, in the East, in Japan, for example, parts of China, there’s an awful lot of tears after I’ve given a talk.

Because the young people say, well, we had no hope at all, and now you’ve given us hope. And it’s a hard struggle, but we feel re-inspired. And they want to thank me. So there’s more desperation in some countries.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Bill in Reno. Hi.

SPEAKER 2: Hi, Jane. This is Bill from the US Wolf Refuge. How are you?

JANE GOODALL: I’m fine, thank you.

SPEAKER 2: I wanted to ask you about inspiration. Your book, “Reason for Hope,” it’s intended to inspire people to realize that they can make a positive difference no matter how overwhelming things appear. 25 years ago you went to a scientific conference that changed your life. You went as a scientific field researcher and you left as an ambassador for making the world a better place.

How was it– or who was it– that inspired you to the point to shift your life’s focus from chimpanzees to your present endeavor for empowering everybody, especially the kids, to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment?

JANE GOODALL: Well, it was very simple, really. This was the very first time that there was a conference pulled together which involved just chimpanzee researchers from across Africa and some non-invasive captive researchers. And during that conference, which was four days in Chicago, there was a session on conservation.

And it was utterly shocking I think, to all of us. Right across Africa– forests disappearing, chimpanzees being hunted for food, numbers plummeting from way over a million when I began– it’s about 170,000 250,000 100,000 today. We’re not quite sure. But anyway, plummeting numbers.

And so we had a session on treatment of chimps in captivity and the medical research labs, training for the circus and so forth. And that was shocking too. And so I left knowing that the time had come– I’d learned so much from the chimps. They’d given me so much– that I should go out and try and do something, whatever I could, for them.

And that’s how it began, traveling in Africa, talking to heads of state, talking to the local people– and then realizing that so many of Africa’s problems were the legacy of colonialism, were caused by very often the dark side of globalization as big corporations taking, taking, taking of the last natural resources from Africa. And so realizing, well, I better start talking also in Europe and in North America and then in Asia.

And so gradually it grew and– from chimpanzees, then you must save the forest. To save the forest, you have to work with the people living around the forest and improve their way of life. To do that, you need to get help and a different attitude from some of the big donor agencies overseas– and then meeting all these young people and realizing what’s the point of any of this if we’re not raising new generations to be better stewards than we’ve been.

IRA FLATOW: And these kids are receptive to doing this.

JANE GOODALL: Totally receptive. I mean, the number of children who’ve written to me from all over the world and said, you’ve taught me that because you did it, I can do it too. And I mean, could you have a better– it’s just wonderful to get remarks like that. And grownups after a lecture, who say, I’d given up, but you’ve inspired me to do my bit.

IRA FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Evan in St. Louis. Hi, Evan.


IRA FLATOW: Hi, there.

SPEAKER 3: What?

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

SPEAKER 3: This is Marissa in California, and I’m a huge fan of Jane Goodall.


SPEAKER 3: Oh, my gosh. Is this really you? Yes, it’s really, really me. So what do you want to ask?

SPEAKER 3: Oh, my gosh. OK. Wow. Hi.


SPEAKER 3: So I was wondering when– how old you were when you started being a fan of primates and everything?

JANE GOODALL: I started– I think really my love affair with primates, with apes, began when I– how old are you?

SPEAKER 3: I’m 13.

JANE GOODALL: OK. Well, I was about 11. And when I was about 11, I found a book in a secondhand bookstore, because we didn’t have any money when I was growing up. We couldn’t even afford a bicycle. And I found this secondhand book and it was called “Tarzan of the Apes.”

And I bought that book. I saved up and bought it, and I read it and I read it and I read it. And I wanted to go out into the jungle and live with wild animals. And then Tarzan went and married that other stupid Jane, and I was really jealous.

And that’s when I began dreaming that I would go to Africa, I would live with animals and I would write books about them. So just a little bit younger than you. And everybody–


JANE GOODALL: –laughed at me. Everyone laughed at me except my mother. And she would say, if you really want something and you work hard and you never give up, if you never give up, you’ll find a way. So I’m saying that to you and to any other young people listening now, just what my mother said to me.

SPEAKER 3: Thank you. And then you were talking about a– your children’s group thing. What was that called?

JANE GOODALL: Talking about Tarzan?

IRA FLATOW: Roots & Shoots.


JANE GOODALL: Oh, Roots. Yes, you have to find out about Roots & Shoots. Look up–


JANE GOODALL: Roots & Shoots. It’s like of a plant, you know?

SPEAKER 3: Uh-huh.

JANE GOODALL: Rootsandshoots.org. And get it going in your school, and you will be such a big help to me. And the most important message of Roots & Shoots is that every single one of us, and that means you and me and Ira, every day, we make a difference. And we can choose what sort of difference we’re going to make.

SPEAKER 3: All right. Wow. That’s really good advice. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

JANE GOODALL: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for calling.

SPEAKER 3: All right. Bye.

IRA FLATOW: Bye bye.


IRA FLATOW: You’re listening to “Science Friday” from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow with Jane Goodall, trying to get my composure back. 1-800-989-8255. You are such a powerful speaker in such a simple way, Jane.

JANE GOODALL: Well, I think it was a gift, you know? We get gifts, don’t we? I had a gift of speaking and writing. I think it comes from my Celtic ancestors. My mother’s family all came from Wales. I don’t know, but I’ve done my best to use that gift because I know it’s making a difference. That’s why I travel these stupid 300 days a year.

IRA FLATOW: And that last caller was a good example.

JANE GOODALL: Exactly. Now you see exactly what I mean. These young people are so inspiring. And if they get it and they’re empowered, my goodness, what they are doing all around the world is unbelievable.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any way to measure progress in this front? Or success, or any–

JANE GOODALL: Well, I suppose you could say that there was some progress simply because the world leaders came together in Copenhagen. It was a disappointment in that was no proper treaty, but we knew that. And the good news there for me– I went because of REDD– that’s reduction in emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, for the CO2 emissions that are released into the atmosphere every time you cut down a tree, and particularly a tropical forest tree. And REDD is a way of encouraging the polluters to give money to pay people not to cut their trees down. It’s very simple.


JANE GOODALL: And that’s apparently the cheapest and most efficient way of making an impact on climate change. And so the good news for me while I was in Copenhagen was the number of countries who joined in and said, yeah, we do believe this is terribly important. And in some cases committed a few billion. Not enough, but at least this is a way for me of coming back to the chimpanzees who remain the heart of everything, because it’s a way of protecting their forests throughout the Congo Basin.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve also been working to improve the situation of women in developing countries. What kind of progress can you report on that?

JANE GOODALL: Certainly. I’m really talking about what I know about, which is the program that we developed around the Gombe National Park, which is now being extended way down into the south. And we discovered that the empowerment of women was tremendously important for various reasons, but mainly because as women’s education increases all around the planet, we find that family size tends to drop. So we have scholarships to keep girls in school beyond puberty. And guess what? That means that you have to provide hygienic latrines to the school. Because at puberty the girls can’t stand the lack of privacy or the lack of hygiene, so they tend to drop out of school.

It’s just one example of how everything on this planet is interrelated. And you do one thing, and that impinges on another. And that’s why the Jane Goodall Institute now is so holistic and inclusive. We have 25 Jane Goodall Institutes in 25 countries now.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. One last quick question that I’d be remiss in not asking you. Have you gotten any more data for Yeti or Sasquatch? Collected anything new? I know you’re interested in learning more about that.

JANE GOODALL: Yeah, well, I’m just so fascinated by the fact that everywhere I’ve been in the tropical world– and not just the tropical world– I mean you can hardly say Everest is tropical. There are stories about this strange ape-like, human-like creature. And whether it started in the mists of time with some remnants from Neanderthal man I don’t know, but it absolutely fascinates me to look at all these stories and– it’s amazing.

IRA FLATOW: It’s amazing. You’re amazing, Jane. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

JANE GOODALL: Well, thank you very much for inviting me onto this really good and fascinating program, I must say.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much. You’re very kind. Dr. Jane Goodall– primatologist, UN Messenger of Peace, also founder of the Jane Goodall Institute in Arlington. Her latest book is “Hope for Animals and their World. How Endangered Species are being Rescued from the Brink.” Always welcome. Dr. Goodall’s been coming on our program for almost 20 years, and– you’re always welcome back, Jane, whenever you’d like to. Thank you for appearing again today.

That’s about all the time we have for today. We had help from Greg Smith, who composed our theme music, and from NPR Librarian Kee Malesky. Surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com. We’re podcasting and blogging, and we’re tweeting– twittering, tweeting all week long. Good group of folks doing that. We just hit our 30,000th follower.

Also you can take this program and shove it into your pocket with our new iPhone app and take it along with you and– be very happy to have you join us that way. Listen to our blogs and our videos and audios. And our new “Science Friday” pick of the week is up there on our website.

So have a great weekend. We’ll see you next week. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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