Jane Goodall Reflects On 60 Years Of Research And Conservation

27:09 minutes

jane goodall stares wistfully into the distance, smiling warmly
Jane Goodall in Gombe National Park. Credit: FrameXFrame Films

60 years ago this year, a young Jane Goodall entered the Gombe in Tanzania to begin observations of the chimpanzees living there. During her time there, Goodall observed wild chimpanzees in the Gombe making and using tools—a finding that changed our thinking about chimps, primates, and even humans.  Now, Goodall travels the world as a conservationist, advocate for animals, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. 

She joins guest host John Dankosky to reflect on her years of experience in the field, the scientific efforts she is involved with today, and the need for hope and cooperation in an increasingly connected but chaotic world. 

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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

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. 60 years ago this year, researchers began a project observing the behavior of wild chimpanzees in the Gombe. One of these researchers was a young Jane Goodall, who would go on to document tool use among the chimps and change our perceptions of the animal world.

60 years on now, Dr. Jane Goodall is a global conservationist. She’s founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace. Dr. Jane Goodall, thanks so much for joining us. And it’s good to speak with you once again. Welcome to Science Friday.

JANE GOODALL: Well, good to speak with you, too. But by the way, when I went out to Gombe, it wasn’t a group of research. It was me alone.


JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I guess– I guess that’s right. So a group of researchers versus you alone– tell us about that. Take us back to that time, if you would.

JANE GOODALL: Well, yeah, it’s actually– you know, it’s very easy for me to remember going along the lake shore and looking up at the hills. It’s very steep. It’s a series of valleys running down into Lake Tanganyika.

And looking there, I’m thinking, how am I ever going to find the chimpanzees. But then, having dreamed about being in the wild with animals since I was 10, once we got the tent up, I climbed up a little way. It was getting towards evening. And I sat there. There were baboons barking and birds singing. And looking out the lake, and it was just the most incredible like– you know, my dream has actually come true.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That must be an amazing feeling, when your dream as a young girl comes true. What do you remember about that time when you actually realized, my goodness, I’m going to have chimpanzees surrounding me.

JANE GOODALL: It wasn’t like that at first. They would take one look and run away.


JANE GOODALL: It took some– I would say six months before I could sit calmly with chimps around me. But luckily, after four months, one of them– David Greybeard, I named him. He was the one who began to lose his fear. And he was the one who showed me chimps using and making tools, something that, then, f was thought that only humans did.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That initial observation of tool use, is that still the most important thing that you think we learned from your research?

JANE GOODALL: No, I don’t actually. I think the most important thing is– you know, when I went to Cambridge after two years, I hadn’t been to college before. But I’d been with the chimps for two years.

And I was nervous. And the professors told me that I shouldn’t have named the chimpanzees. They should have had numbers. I couldn’t talk about personality, mind, or emotion because those were unique to us. But I had this wonderful teacher as a child who taught me that wasn’t true. That was my dog.


JANE GOODALL: And because chimpanzees are so biologically like us and because, by this time, my to-be husband had been taking photographs and filming, science had to change this reductionist way of thinking and realize we are part of and not separated from the rest of the animal kingdom.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What do you think researchers have learned from watching these chimp families in all these lineages, in all these years after you first spent time there?

JANE GOODALL: Yeah, we’ve just entered the fourth generation. And through DNA analysis, we now know who the fathers are. So one of the things that fascinates me is there’s good and bad chimp mothers, just as in human society. And I was lucky in having a good, supportive mother. She supported this crazy dream when everybody else laughed at me.

And so we find that, looking back over 60 years, typically, the offspring of the good supportive mothers do better. The males reach a higher position in the hierarchy, probably sire more infants. And the females are better mothers.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What’s a good chimp a mother like? I mean, what’s the behavior that characterizes a good mother from a bad mother in that world?

JANE GOODALL: In chimp or human?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, [LAUGHS] I think we can all assume we know a bit about humans. But tell us about in the chimp world.

JANE GOODALL: Well, it’s exactly the same as in the human world, you see. And that is that the good mother will be protective but not overprotective. She’ll be playful. She’ll be attentive. She’ll always run to support a child, even if that child has got in a squabble with the infant of a higher ranking female and the mother knows that she’s going to get beaten up.

She will still go to the support of her child. And I learned from the chimps that what is really important for us is for the child to have– to be surrounded by up to three adults who are consistently there for the child and make the child feel secure. And even if it’s not the biological parents, as long as there is that small group of support around the child, that gives them a really good start. And it’s the same for chimps.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re talking with Dr. Jane Goodall. And you can tweet at us SciFri if you have some thoughts or ideas for her. Do you ever think about the fact that someone else may have done this, if you hadn’t have gone out to the Gombe 60 years ago, that someone else may have seen this behavior? Do you think that they would have had the same experiences, learned the same things?

JANE GOODALL: Well, I presume so, I mean, if they’d gone to Gombe. But we know now that chimpanzees, in different parts of Africa, behave in different ways. They actually have cultures, which the young ones learn by observing the adults. And chimps, like us, have a long childhood. And I think that’s important because they have an awful lot to learn.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Do you ever think the world would have been different, or the world of this research would have been different, if you would have looked at some other form of African wildlife, you know, giraffes, for instance? I mean, is there something very specific that we learned because we studied chimpanzees because they’re so close to us? Or do you ever think about the idea that you could have gone off on another quest to, I don’t know, search for elephants.

JANE GOODALL: Well, I would have. I would have studied any animal in Africa. It was Louis Leakey who wanted me to study the chimpanzees. And I think the importance of that was that I have not been to University.

I hadn’t been taught that there was a difference in kind between us and other animals. If I had been to University and the scientists had tried to indoctrinate me in that way, I don’t know if I would have been the same or different. But Louis Leakey pounced on this mind, as he called it, uncluttered with reductionist scientific thinking.

So you know, I went and watched the chimpanzees. I came to recognize them. I could see their different personalities. You can see their emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, despair. It’s more or less the same as us.

And because of that, because science began to change– it had to– then our relationship with the rest of the animal world has changed. And we now can study emotion and intelligence in creatures as different from us as the octopus.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So much of your work now is about conservation. I guess I’ll first ask, what do you think the world has learned about conservation from some of your African research?

JANE GOODALL: Well, what I learned is that– when I’d been in the field for about– well, up until ’60 to ’86. But it’s a conference where different people, by then, were studying chimps. And it was very clear that chimp numbers were decreasing. Forests were disappearing.

And at Gombe, it’s a very tiny national park. It was surrounded by 12 villages. And they were literally struggling to survive, extreme poverty, overused soil, terrible soil erosion where they cut down the trees on the steep slopes, which they had to do to try and survive.

And so that’s when it hit me. If we don’t do something to improve their lives, help them find ways of living without destroying the environment, we can’t possibly begin to save the chimps, to conserve the chimps, or go on studying chimps. So the Jane Goodall Institute began our program TACARE, “take-care,” in those 12 villages. It’s now at 104 villages throughout the whole chimp range in Tanzania and in six other African countries where we’re studying chimpanzees. So the villages have now become our partners in conservation.

JOHN DANKOSKY: How much do you think the world, though, by and large, has changed in their views of conservation overall this time? It feels sometimes as though we take a step forward and then a big step back. What are your thoughts about 60 years of conservation in the world?

JANE GOODALL: Well, it’s not really 60 years because, when I began, there wasn’t really this need for conservation. It was an equatorial forest belt right across Africa. The Amazon was still wild and unknown.

And so it sort of hit suddenly– this sudden need of– this sudden realization that the habitats were being destroyed as human populations grew, as the Western world got more greedy and wanted more and more stuff, as the economy works on businesses, creating materials, goods that are going to be self-destructive in so many years, where people go on buying and buying, wasting and wasting. It’s a vicious circle.

And you can’t– it’s absurd to think you can have unlimited economic development in a planet with finite natural resources. So the battle of those of us who want to conserve the environment is huge because we’re up against the big companies, corrupt governments, corrupt business.

And you know, sometimes you think, well, how on earth are we ever seem to make change, the change we must make? Because we are part of the natural environment. We’re not separated from it.

We depend on forests for clear air and clean water. And forests and oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide, for example. But my biggest hope lies in the fact that we, in 1991, started our Roots & Shoots program. And it began with 12 high school students in Tanzania who were concerned about different things.

It’s now in– it’s in 65 countries. It’s got hundreds and thousands of young people from kindergarten to university. And they all choose– between them, three projects, they choose one to help people, one to help animals, one to help the environment. So these projects differ depending on their age, kind of environment they’re in, if they’re rich or poor, the country, their religion sometimes. So it’s my greatest hope because, everywhere I go, there are young people wanting to tell Dr. Jane what they doing to make the world a better place, enthusiasm, excitement, determination.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I love that idea, though, of doing something for the animals, doing something for people, and doing something for the environment. So many activists, it seems, pick one of those three and focus all their efforts there as opposed to saying, we need to take care of all three of these things.

JANE GOODALL: Yeah, we really do, and it’s all– you see, I learned about the interconnectedness of everything out in the rainforest, where you learn that every species, no matter how small, has a role to play. And all of it is important if you want to maintain the biodiversity of the area. And that’s what keeps the habitat healthy.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re talking with Dr. Jane Goodall, a global conservationist, of course. She’s the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute. And we’re taking some of your tweets at SciFri. I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

At the Davos Forum on climate change this year, you threw your support behind an effort called One Trillion Trees. It’s aimed at widespread nature restoration. Can you tell us more about that and why you think it’s so important?

JANE GOODALL: Yeah, so it was Marc Benioff of Salesforce that got behind that and made it prominent. And the thing is that it’s been apparently worked out that one trillion trees would be sufficient to absorb the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

And certainly, planting trees is important. Protecting the existing forest is even more important. But planting trees helping to restore degraded forest land– planting trees in urban areas, too, because that regulates the temperature of the city. It provides shade. But perhaps most important of all, it raises the comfort level of people having this green surrounding them.

JOHN DANKOSKY: There were a few of your comments at Davos that were a bit controversial. You said that the environmental problems we’re dealing with wouldn’t really be a problem if we had the global population we did 500 years ago. What did you mean by that statement?

JANE GOODALL: Well, what I mean is that, today, it’s said that we have 7.2 billion people on the planet. And already, in many places, we’re using up natural resources faster than nature can replenish them. And obviously, as poor countries get richer, they want the same standard of living as we have in the West.

So you know, on the one hand, we have our unsustainable lifestyles. And you have extreme poverty destroying the environment because you have to to survive. But then it’s predicted that, in 2050, there will be 9.7 billion of us, all wanting better lifestyles.

So how can the planet cope? So what I mean by it is, as our numbers grow and as we make a real change in our mind attitude, and learn to live with much, ta less, and alleviate poverty so that the poor can also look after the environment– So I think you get the picture. It’s just sheer simple fact.

And one comment that I heard was that Jane’s blaming the southern world, India, Africa because they have many children. But in fact, one child from a wealthy society will use up– I don’t know, the numbers differ– but 10 times more, maybe slightly more natural resources than a child in a poor community in Africa.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So as you said before, it’s about that imbalance, that the world of big business is in corporations and the wealthiest use so many more resources than the poorest people in the southern part of the globe.

JANE GOODALL: Yes, absolutely. So it’s really awful, all this climate change. And yet the people who suffer are the people who really haven’t contributed to it at all. It’s extremely unfair.

And hopefully, our Roots and Shoots young people, they’ve all got the same attitude. They all know that things have to change. They’re all getting ideas as to what to do about it. And they’re very passionate you things like palm oil plantations, and plastic, and all those sorts of things, and planting trees. We’ve guaranteed that our youth will plant five million trees this year.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We have some tweets coming in. John says, thanks Dr. Goodall for all her conservation work. I use her advocacy for planting trees along farms adjacent to Gombe to help explain landscape quarters in conservation when teaching ecology principles.

And James has a tweet, says, our 9-year-old has been so inspired by your work. His dream is to work with and save orangutans. So what advice, Jane Goodall, do you have for him and his hopes?

JANE GOODALL: Well, first of all, maybe he is part of Roots and Shoots. But if he doesn’t find out how to become involved because then he’s with other young people who– he’ll find others who want to help orangutans. And they desperately need it. So my advice is to learn all that you can about them, not to give up his dream. And with Roots and Shoots, he can find ways to help them now.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Jane Goodall, you’ve lived through a lot of eras in the world in which things have been scary. And times have changed. f It seems very scary right now. I’m wondering if you can talk about how you feel about this particular moment in history as we’re all huddled in our homes and unable to go outside and socialize.

JANE GOODALL: Well, it is a very scary time. I’m not in a position to not socialize because it’s quite a large family of us in the house. Now I’m in the house where I grew up. It’s a family home.

But I think, you know this– you always look for some kind of silver lining in these situations. I remember the other time when I felt initially as horrified as now was with 9/11 when I was in New York. And that was a shocking time.

And it sort of had a paralyzing effect, not only in America, but around the world. This is actually affecting everyone. So that the little silver lining is that it’s reopened the discussion about our interaction with wild animals, the trafficking of them, the selling them, selling them for meat.

People are blaming China for this virus. And yes, it did start with what they call a wet market in China. And so did SARS. It was another wet market in China.

But the HIV virus, that started in Africa with people eating chimpanzees and monkeys. And there was a terrible pandemic started with from contact with cattle in a slaughterhouse in the United States. So we just have to rethink of, as we get closer and closer, particularly to wild animals, the viruses in them can do what they call cross the species barrier and jump in to us.

And it’s usually from handling them, from the blood, eating slightly uncooked meat, and that sort of thing. There was another pandemic from– gained from camels in the Middle East. So it is really making us rethink our relationship with other animals.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It is. But even with these signals, do you have hope that we get the message this time around?

JANE GOODALL: Well, China immediately banned all import and selling of wild animals in China and closed down all the meat markets. Hopefully, because this pandemic seems to be worse than the others, having more effect economically, that this ban will be made permanent and extend it to the animals used in traditional Chinese medicine.

But then we come to Africa. Well, until we eradicate poverty, it’s going to be very hard to stop people handling wild animals in Africa because a lot of them depend on them for food. So you know these are– this is how all this interconnectedness of everything is, really, sometimes very, very challenging.

And clearly, I don’t have the answers. I know what we should do. But I don’t know how to get there.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, you’ve spent so much time studying the behavior of chimpanzees. I’m wondering, as we consider just the boundaries of society, what it means to be a society when we can’t interact in the way we once had. Do you think there’s any wisdom that we can draw from the chimps and the societies that they have?

JANE GOODALL: Well, they’re so like ours. But [LAUGHS] I think what it does is help us to understand ourselves. I mean, they show emotions, happiness, sadness, fear, anger, grief. They definitely grieve.

They have gestures, the same as us, kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting one another, begging for food. They also, when I was horrified to find out, had a very dark, brutal side. And they can have– they kill, can kill each other, kill individuals from a neighboring social group.

And of course, these are the kind of things that humans have done for as far back as we know. So it’s– Louis Leakey sent me to study the chimps because he reckoned there was a common ancestor, ape-like, human-like about six million years ago. That’s what most people believe now.

So he thought, well, if Jane’s behavior, similar or the same, in chimps today, in humans today, maybe that was in that common ancestor. And he was fascinated in that because he was a paleontologist. He was searching for the remains of Stone Age people. And so he said, ah, this will help me to imagine how these people, living so long ago, might have behaved.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to read one more tweet. And this comes from Brooke. And it goes back to the beginning of our conversation. We were talking about you know how a good chimp mother from a poor chimp mother. And she wants to know, do chimp mothers discipline their young?

JANE GOODALL: Oh, yes. They do. They– when they’re very young– and this is something I noticed and practiced with my own child a lot, no punishment. And I’ve seen human mothers– you know, a little, tiny child spills milk on their feeding tray and pokes around in their finger.

Well, actually the child is exploring. It’s how they learn. And the mother will slap it. Well, it’s OK to slap an older child who knows that you shouldn’t spill milk all over your table. But for a little child of 1 and 1/2?

So chimp mothers are really good at distracting their infants when they’re doing something irritating like trying to steal the mother’s tools. So you see a mother chimp. And she’s fishing for termites with one hand and tickling her infant with the

Other. But if the infant goes– pushes her beyond her patience, they punish with a little bite on the hand. It doesn’t break skin. But it makes the child scream.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m thinking that story might resonate with a lot of parents, men and women who are stuck working at home with children running around the house these days.



JANE GOODALL: Distraction. We’re trying to think of lots of new things to do for children. And we’re going to put out posts about that for these children who are stuck at home.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, actually, if somebody else tweets– Amanda tweets, have you ever consider doing fireside chats on a podcast or during this–



JANE GOODALL: –talking about it today.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, really? Tell us more. What are you going to do?

JANE GOODALL: Well, [INAUDIBLE] we’re making a list of people who might agree to do such a fireside chat on a podcast.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What would that sound like? I mean, if you had a regular podcast or a regular message to get out to people, what would you want to communicate to people who would seek out your podcast?

JANE GOODALL: Well, I think– I was thinking of the fireside chat. So it would be me and one other person. And you’d pick people who have interests in the different things that I’m interested in, whether it’s what we do about the wild animal trafficking or whether it’s about child care, comparing chimps and humans, climate change, those kind of things. And if you’ve got interesting people, the conversation would be interesting.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Point us, if you would, quickly to another environmental or conservation leader, somebody who you might sit down for one of those chats, who we should know about.

JANE GOODALL: Well, one person that I’m trying to sit down and chat with is Leonardo DiCaprio because he really cares passionately about the environment. And I know him quite well. And I think it would attract a lot of people if he and I sat down and chatted.

I don’t know if he’d agree. But you know, he might. David Attenborough might agree. And there’s other people, we just– we haven’t made the list yet.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, I’m hoping that some of them are listening right now. And somebody is in– maybe Leo will call you right after this because I think that– I can imagine that millions of people would download that podcast, Jane Goodall. Thank you so much, once again, for spending time with us. I really do appreciate it.

JANE GOODALL: Thank you, too.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And please stay safe, all right.

JANE GOODALL: Oh, yes. I’ll stay as safe as I possibly can. Wash my hands a lot. Keep my distance. No, no hugging, elbow bumping and all the rest of it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, we’ll elbow bump when we see you next time. Thanks again.

JANE GOODALL: We will, indeed.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Jane Goodall.

JANE GOODALL: Or namaste.

JOHN DANKOSKY: She’s a global conservationist, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and UN Messenger of Peace.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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