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Environmental crusader Jane Goodall has a message for mankind: let’s fix this planet. Shane Gilchrist reports.
"Every single day we make an impact on the world. The question is, what kind of impact do we want to make?"
So asks Jane Goodall, the famed ethnologist who has devoted many of her 83 years to not only questioning what separates mankind from other animals but also examining our similarities. One key conclusion: opposable thumbs may have helped us rise above other species yet, in hitching a ride on nature’s back, we have despoiled much.
"We have become selfish, materialistic. We are using up the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished," Goodall decries from her home in England before she prepares for a third visit to New Zealand, which includes a public address in Dunedin titled "Tomorrow & Beyond".
One of four appearances in New Zealand, the event will comprise a 20-minute lecture, followed by a 40-minute conversation between Goodall and a guest host, and an audience question-and-answer session. She then heads to Singapore, India and, eventually, back to Tanzania, where she first made a name for herself almost 60 years ago.
Goodall transformed the way we think about animals through her ground-breaking work with primates. In 1960, in Gombe, Tanzania, she defied scientific convention of the time when she documented, for the first time, not only the complex personalities of chimpanzees, but the striking similarities they had to humans in terms of emotional and social complexity, the use of tools, and of experiencing war and peace.
Tanzania was not without its dangers.
In 1975, Goodall and four students were making field observations about 50km from rebel leader Laurent Kabila’s heavily armed camp. The four assistants were beaten, taken in the middle of the night and made prisoners of Kabila. Alerted by a guard, Goodall hid and managed to avoid capture.
Eventually, the families of the kidnapped victims raised more than $NZ600,000 in ransom and the prisoners were released.
An author of more than 25 books, Goodall has won numerous awards, medals and honorary doctorate degrees and was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004. She spends about 300 days a year on the road, giving interviews, doing lectures and talks in schools, meeting officials from various governments, raising money for the Jane Goodall Institute which this year marks its 40th anniversary as a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, as well as pursuing campaigns in environmentalism, education and animal welfare awareness.
As a National Geographic article noted: "Louis Leakey sent her to study chimpanzees because he thought their behaviour might cast light on human ancestors, his chosen subject. Jane ignored that part of the mandate and studied chimps for their own sake, their own interest, their own value. While doing that, she created institutions and opportunities that have yielded richly in the work of other scientists, as well as a luminous personal example that has brought many young women and men into science and conservation."
Goodall says her main job now is to raise awareness of environmental issues.
"All of the Jane Goodall Institute groups in different countries are relying on me to help raise money. I’ve told them all that I’m not going to be around forever so they need to start doing it on their own.
"I have an amazing network of friends, supporters and workers, young and old. They help me to keep going. I can’t do it on my own. I have to recharge my energy as I go along, really," says Goodall, who has inspired young people to join her 26-year-old Roots & Shoots programme.
(They include Tahu Mackenzie, the Orokonui Ecosanctuary educator who was one of 30 people selected from around the world for a week-long Roots & Shoots symposium at Windsor Castle in 2015.)
"Basically, it’s about young people choosing projects to make the world better," Goodall explains.
"They must choose one project that helps people, another that helps other species and one that helps the environment. It is now in 98 countries."
Goodall still returns to Gombe "twice a year". Although most of the chimpanzees she studied are no longer alive, the time she spent there is part of her fabric, she says.
"Those forests remain inside me. And that means I can recharge quite quickly with just a small immersion in nature.
"There is a wonderful team in Tanzania, including a programme aimed at helping the people there. If people are living in poverty, then we can’t expect them to care about the environment. We have to give them a better life and, in turn, they are turning around and helping us protect the environment."
Which brings her back to the main focus of her forthcoming New Zealand engagements: reminding humans that we share this earth with many other lifeforms.
"We need to realise we are not these special creatures. We are part of an amazing animal kingdom, in which other species have an awful lot to teach us.
"If we continue to destroy the natural world, then we destroy ourselves.
"We are behaving in a very irresponsible, immature and selfish way right now. This extends to the swing to the far right in some places around the world. Some people can only count success by the amount of money they make or the stuff they own, but it’s ruining the planet."
Yet, we shouldn’t give up hope, Goodall urges.
"You either give up or you decide to fight for a world that has given you a lot.
"I have been given two gifts; a healthy body and the power of communication. So I had better use those."
• "Tomorrow & Beyond", an evening with Jane Goodall. Regent Theatre, Dunedin, Sunday, June 25.