Amazing Jane Goodall

This celebrated naturalist has dedicated her life to learning about chimps in the wild and advocating the need to conserve wildlife.

April 02, 2015 07:09 pm | Updated April 03, 2015 07:53 am IST

Call of the wild: A lot like us. Photo: Special Arrangement

Call of the wild: A lot like us. Photo: Special Arrangement

If the word “chimpanzee” has become synonymous with Dr. Jane Goodall, there’s a good reason for it. In 1960, at the age of 26, Jane went off to study wild chimpanzees in Africa — a most unusual thing for any man or woman to do in those days. Fifty-five years later, she is their staunchest and most well-known champion. But how did her extraordinary journey begin? Believe it or not, it started with a life-like chimpanzee toy that her father gave her when she was a child that strengthened her love for animals.

Jane was born in London, England, on April 3, 1934. Her father was a businessman, and her mother, a novelist. Fascinated with Africa from a young age, she went to Kenya to visit a friend when she was 23, and started working there as a secretary. Her life changed when she met Louis Leakey, a pioneering archaeologist and palaeontologist. Leakey, who was deeply interested in understanding human evolution, felt that in order to truly understand how our species evolved, it was also necessary to study man’s closest relatives, the great apes. He encouraged Jane to study wild chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, triggering off what has become the longest-running research programme on these fascinating primates.

Jane’s life as a field biologist was not an easy one. To study chimpanzees, she had to be in the forest before dawn every day and follow them around on foot until dark. Her small camp in the jungle had few comforts, and she had to constantly endure many physical hardships, including getting drenched in torrential rain while following her subjects. Initially, the chimpanzees would catch sight of her and vanish in fear. But, gradually, they came to realize that she was harmless, and allowed her to get close. Eventually, they even accepted her as a member of their troop, giving her an unprecedented close view of their daily lives.

No monkey business

We may think of chimpanzees as cute, vegetarian animals that make us laugh. But they are powerful animals, and can be quite intimidating. The common chimpanzee, known by the scientific name, Pan troglodytes , is a large animal. A male is about as tall as an average Indian man, and can weigh 70 kg. Jane’s only defence in the midst of these potentially dangerous animals was her deep understanding of their behaviour. By following them day after day, she was able to piece together the different aspects of their lives, revealing facts that were previously not known to the world. She discovered that, just like us, chimpanzees too have individual personalities; some are gentle, while others are aggressive; some are shy while others are extrovert.

She also discovered, for the first time, that chimpanzees sometimes use tools. When they discovered a termite nest, some of the more innovative chimpanzees would break a twig and insert it into the nest. When termites climbed on to the twig, it was quickly extricated and the little insects were gobbled up.

Another fascinating fact, and one that shocked the world, was her discovery that chimpanzees were not the vegetarians that everyone thought they were, but crafty hunters too. She observed that her chimpanzees would deliberately target colobus monkeys, isolate one from its troop through careful coordination, and then kill it and share its meat.

So much of what we know about chimpanzees today is due to the dedicated work of Jane Goodall. But she is also a tireless campaigner for their conservation and a crusader for all wildlife. Her accomplishments and awards are too numerous to mention, but her greatest achievement perhaps, is in continuing to inspire thousands of people around the world to care for our living planet.

Born to be wild

When she completed her doctoral thesis on wild chimpanzees in 1965, Jane became one of the few people, without any former degrees, to be awarded a PhD by Cambridge University.

She is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute for research and conservation and the Roots & Shoots programme, which inculcates conservation awareness among young people around the world.

She is the recipient of numerous international awards, including the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize, the Kyoto Prize, the Hubbard Medal, and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

She is a vegetarian, for ethical, environmental and health reasons. She also campaigns against the use of animals in medical research, zoos, farming and sport.

She is the author of several books, including In the Shadow of Man , which is mainly about her early years among the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park. She has also written many books for children.

Shekar Dattatri is an award-winning wildlife photographer and filmmaker. He has authored three children’s books and is the co-founder of Conservation India, an online portal to enable conservation.

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