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Jane Goodall – Life with the chimps

 Ireland's Big Issue 24 January 2019

As a young woman she preferred to be outside learning about animals, and by the age of eleven had decided that she wanted to live in Africa. Her discovery that chimpanzees use tools was momentous, and her research in the African jungle became renowned worldwide. Jane Goodall has changed the way we all view our nearest relatives. (1313 Words) - By Jennifer May

BI Ireland_ Jane Goodall

Photo courtesy of Ireland's Big Issue

As man destroys their natural habitats and animal species continue to disappear from the wild in ever increasing numbers, the work carried out by naturalists and scientists into animal behaviour is even more crucial than ever to their survival. Few scientists ever make it into the public consciousness, working as they do behind the scenes; however there is one woman who stands out, as having that popular appeal that has led her voice to reach millions of people in her quest to protect the wildlife on this planet. Through her work with chimpanzees in the jungles of the Gombe Game reserve in Africa, Jane Goodall has changed the way we all view our nearest relatives in the wild.  Now considered the world's foremost authority on chimpanzees, over the last 30 years, through her Jane Goodall Institute, she has taught the rest of the world to love and appreciate these fascinating animals, and has as a result improved their chances of survival on a planet that is becoming increasingly hostile towards most of its animal species.

Born in 1934 in London, Jane came from a middle-class family. Her father Mortimer Herbert Morrison-Goodall was an engineer and her mother, Vanna (whom she credits with inspiring her love of all things chimp) was a successful novelist. While she was a good student, even as young child, the young Jane would prefer to be outside learning about animals, and by the age of eleven had decided that she wanted to live in Africa; a goal which her mother actively encouraged.

At the age of eighteen Jane left school and worked at various jobs, doing whatever she could to save money for her first trip to Africa. A couple of years later, a friend wrote to Jane inviting her to spend time at her family's new farm in Kenya, so after working as a waitress for months to save the fare, in April 1957 she finally set sail for Mombassa aboard 'The Kenya Castle.'  Within weeks of her arrival, Jane met the famous archaeologist Louis S.B. Leakey, who was so taken with her energy and enthusiasm hired her as his assistant, asking her to go to Tanzania (then the British protectorate Tanganyika) and study a group of chimpanzees that were living by a lake in Gombe.  Leakey believed that studying these animals, which were little understood at the time but were thought to be our closest evolutionary relatives, would bring us a greater understanding of our own evolutionary journey: he would be proven to be right.

Jane and her mother, arrived in Gombe in 1960 and she began what would become her life's work; studying the habits of these chimps and recording in meticulous detail all she saw.   She soon discovered that chimps were meat-eaters, not vegetarians, as had been previously thought, and would hunt for prey, including smaller monkeys, bush pig and other small animals.  She would also make another exciting discovery a few weeks after her arrival when she observed one of the chimps, (who she had named David Greybeard), fashioning a tool out of a stick by stripping back the bark and then using it to coax termites out of their mounds.  The discovery that these animals were actually using tools was a momentous one at the time, as prior to Jane's discovery it had always been assumed that tool-making was the trait which separated man from animal; Goodall's discovery was blurring the line between the two and as such, was a very important scientific discovery.  Leakey would arrange more funding for his fledgling scientist (who after all had no scientific degree) arranging for her to enrol in Cambridge as a doctoral student.

Jane's study of the chimps led to many fascinating, here-to unknown facts about their habits.  She found that the females and their children formed the basic units of chimp society, leaving the males to compete for status and access to the females.  The male who won these feats of strength was known as the 'alpha male' and the chimps would use whatever they could to achieve this recognition. (One male, Mike, who was not particularly impressive or strong, resorted to banging empty kerosene drums in his attempt to become the alpha male of his group.  Amazingly the noise of the drums terrified the other chimps and he succeeded in becoming the alpha male, a position he managed to hold on to for six years, even after his drums were confiscated by staff).

She also discovered that chimpanzees had a more brutal side, and were, in actuality, far removed from the tea-drinking, playful, gentle animals, man had portrayed them to be. 'When I first started at Gombe,' Jane said, 'I thought the chimps were nicer than we are. But time has revealed that they are not. They can be just as awful.' Warring factions of chimps would set upon their enemies and fight them to the death to gain control over an area. On one occasion two of the female chimps developed a taste for eating new born chimps, and over a period of three years, killed and ate 10 newborn babies within the group. However, as savage as that seems, they were also capable of kindness and sometimes adopted orphaned babies, bringing them up as if they were their own offspring, cuddling them and sheltering them at night.

The longer Jane spent in Gombe, the more developed became her knowledge and methods for recording her research, however in those earlier years many 'bona fide' scientists were reluctant to accept her findings as true science. One of the reasons for this was that in her research, Jane humanised the chimps, giving them names and attributing human-like personality traits to each individual animal; something a' real' scientist would never do, and which was considered the sin of anthromorphism (giving human traits to an animal).

In 1964 she married wild-life photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick, and the couple had a child together, Hugo (who they nick-named Grub).  But her marriage didn't interfere with the time she spent in Gombe, and after National Geographic published an article on her work, with photographs by van Lawick, her findings were accepted as valid and more funding became available to develop her research centre.

Over the years the Gombe Stream Research Centre grew and with Jane's second marriage in 1974 to Derek Bryceson, head of Tanzania's national parks, the area had a tourist embargo on it, to ensure the security of the chimps. But while Gombe may have been Jane's favourite place on earth, during the 1980's she began touring the world promoting animal conservation. During the 1980's rampant deforestation and its devastating effects on the chimpanzees in Africa forced Goodall to concentrate more on conservation than on research, and in 1986 the publication of her book, 'The Chimpanzees of Gombe' culminated in a conference in Chicago, where for possibly the first time, biologists realised how serious the threats facing chimps living in the wild.

Did that young woman who set off on an African adventure back in the 1950's have any idea that she would dedicate the rest of her life to those animals she met in Gombe?  Maybe not, but today Jane Goodall continues to spend about 300 days a year travelling the globe to advocate on behalf of chimps and other animals facing extinction on our planet today, and through the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), her non-profit organization, she and other like-minded scientists battle to improve global understanding of the great apes and contribute to their preservation in the wild.  And without their dedication those chimps that still survive in their natural habitat would have already become a long distance memory.

Originally published by Ireland's Big Issue ©

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