Warrior for the wild

Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist, has made a difference to the way we look at animals

"It was an extraordinary moment. A mother chimp in the wild allowed her infant to come near and touch me. Four-month-old Flint's big eyes looked into mine and he touched my nose gently," says Dr. Jane Goodall, her eyes softening at the memory. "When you do something you want to, it doesn't seem like years. It is strange to have lived one's dream and by living it, influenced so many lives," she muses. Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist, who is also one of the best known conservationists, has made a difference to the way we see animals and the way we see early man through her path breaking study of chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Goodall has an air of gentleness about her that is striking. "I have the forest within," she tells you and She brings the feel of the forest to audiences around the world, beginning her talks with the distance call of the chimpanzee, native to western and central Africa. She comes into the hall at the British Council, Chennai, for an interview after the screening of When Animals Talk, a Jane Goodall film that flagged off the Wildscreen India festival, organised by the British High Commission, Nature Quest and Alive Foundation, a collaboration of Sathyam Cinemas and Ecotone.

Persistence pays

Seated on a table and awaiting her arrival is Mr. H, a stuffed toy monkey gifted to Goodall on her birthday by Gary Haun, a visually handicapped magician to be "an inspiration wherever you go, a symbol of all you can accomplish." Mr. H has travelled 57 countries. Goodall, a Dame of the British Empire and UN Messenger of Peace, urges young people to believe in their dream. Though "too poor to even buy a bicycle", her persistence helped her make her way to Africa at the age of 23. She spent years patiently studying chimpanzees. She proved sceptics wrong by showing that "animals have minds, personalities and feelings." And "how like chimps we are" because they can fashion tools, show altruism, have social interaction, family relationships, wage gang wars and hunt. She gave the chimps names. Nearly 50 years later, with the same passion, Goodall tours the world, spreading the message of hope and instilling fire in the young to improve their environment.Not just chimpanzees, Goodall has also studied baboons, hyenas and wild dogs. Surprisingly, dogs are her first love. "It was my dog Rusty who helped me understand animals."Observing primates for years, was she afraid of contracting diseases? "No, but in the early years, I was scared of leopards. The only time I was depressed was when the money was running out in the fifth month of the project." Then came the breakthrough. "I saw David Greybeard, a senior chimp, making a tool out of twigs to fish for termites." It was thought till then that only human beings could fashion tools. Her mentor, paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey, was very happy with her work. And she straightaway had to register for a Ph.D "even without a BA."Her eyes light up when she speaks of her mother, Vanne who started her off on her journey by accompanying her to Tanzania as the authorities did not want a young woman to undertake such a dangerous job without an escort. "My mother was wonderful and unusual." Vanne encouraged and understood little Jane's love for animals and her desire to talk to them just like Dr. Doolittle. The Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation, set up to provide support for field research of chimps, now advances the power of individuals to improve the environment.

Roots and shoots

The primatologist is passionate about the Roots and Shoots education programme, which she set up. It believes `every individual matters' and encourages the young to make the world a better place to live in. How does it feel to be an icon? "I still feel just like me," says the slim and fit Goodall who is a fervent advocate of vegetarianism. "The only value is, people are listening to a message I feel is important — every individual has to be prepared to do something every day to save the planet through their actions and choices." As she poses patiently for photographs, you ask her what spurs her on to continue the crusade and give endless press conferences and interviews to the media? "The media helps so much in spreading the message of conservation and creating awareness. It is something I have to do though I'm happiest at Gombe or some other wilderness," says the gentle warrior. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

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