CEF Spotlight

Five Things I’ve Learned from 55 Years of Work at Gombe

By Jane Goodall, Founder, Jane Goodall Institute _1070487
& UN Messenger of Peace 

It was 55 years ago, on July 14, 1960, that I arrived at the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve for the first time. I arrived, with my mother, on the government launch. My own small boat was towed behind. On the shore awaited the reserve’s two rangers and the headman of the small cluster of fishermen’s huts, Iddi Matata. In the thickly forested valleys that stretched from the Rift Escarpment down to Lake Tanganyika awaited the mysterious chimpanzees that I had come to study.

I was 26 and had neither a college degree nor experience observing African wildlife. But paleontologist/anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey believed in me and my ability to find and observe the chimpanzees who for him, along with the other great apes, held the answers to so much of humankind’s past. I, however, was more interested in studying them for themselves, and it was the gradual revealing of their behavior in the wild that would fascinate people around the world.

I had lived at Gombe for most of each year for almost three decades, during which time I established the Gombe Stream Research Center and only left, for a few months at a time, to pursue my Ph.D. at Cambridge University in the UK and to do some teaching at Stanford University in California. But in 1986, after attending a conference about chimpanzee behavior and conservation, I realized I had to leave Gombe to travel the world talking about the threats that chimpanzees and their forests faced across Africa.

I have learned much about chimpanzees, their habitats and the humans who share the land with them during my 55 years of research and conservation work. Here, I would like to share five of the insights I have learned since beginning my work at Gombe 55 years ago.

  1. Chimpanzees are more like the human primate than any other living creature.

During 55 years of research on the Gombe chimpanzees, and also through studies in other places, I have learned how, like us, chimpanzees are in behavior and biology ﹘ they share over 98 percent of the composition of our DNA. They demonstrate impressive intellectual abilities, have distinct personalities and show emotions similar to those we call happiness, sadness, fear, despair, anger and so on. They can use and make tools, have a complex social structure and show long term supportive bonds between family members that can last through a life of 60 or more years. Like us they are capable of violence, even a kind of primitive warfare; like us they are also capable of love, compassion and altruism.

  1. We still have so much to learn about chimpanzees and the rest of the natural world.

Even after 55 years of data collection, we are still continually being surprised by the behavior of individual chimpanzees. And now that we can be assured of paternity, through DNA analysis of fecal samples, a whole new area of research has been opened. Over the years many researchers and field staff have contributed to the ever growing pool of data about chimpanzee behavior. The rich collection of data from the past 55 years of research at Gombe allows students today to enrich their field studies by incorporating information from the long term records. Indeed, some research can be done without even going to Gombe! Several universities have been supporting Gombe’s research and data storage over the years, especially University of Southern California, University of Minnesota and Duke University where all long term data is currently stored. This long term data allows researchers to know the genealogy and life history of individual chimpanzees which opens up new areas of study.

  1. We need to use all possible tools, including innovative technology, to conserve chimpanzees, other animals and habitats. And we cannot do this without improving the lives of villagers living around wilderness areas.

In the early 1990’s I realized that we cannot save chimpanzees and their environment unless we involve the local people living at the periphery of wilderness areas who, only too often, are living in poverty. I started TACARE in Tanzania partly because I knew that the only way to save chimpanzees was to work in collaboration with local communities. TACARE (take care) was started to improve the lives, in a holistic way, of the people living in the 12 villages around the boundary of Gombe National Park. Gradually the villagers came to trust us and have become our partners in conservation of chimpanzees and their forests. JGI now operates in 52 villages in chimpanzee habitat around and to the south of Gombe.

JGI is also using cutting edge technology in the fight to save chimpanzees and their forests. Working with Esri, Google Earth, Digital Globe and NASA, we have created high resolution geospatial maps, enabling villages to create land use management plans including the restoration and protection of forests and the creation of buffer zones between chimp habitat and surrounding villages. Today rangers and volunteer forest monitors check up on the health of their forests and on areas set aside for reforestation, recording illegal activities on smartphones and tablets. With this technology, monitors who patrol the forest can provide real-time data on chimpanzee locations, habitat health and threats to conservation. We are thus building a new generation of environmental leaders who realize that we cannot save the environment unless we involve the local people.

  1. It is important to follow your dreams and stick to your principals.

At age 10 I knew I wanted to study wild animals in Africa. Everyone laughed at such an impossible ambition except for my mother who told me that if you want something you must work hard, take advantage of opportunities and never give up. When Dr. Louis Leakey sent me to study chimpanzees at Gombe in 1960, I had no experience, training or degree. But Louis saw my determination and my passion and had faith in my abilities. Thanks to the support of Leakey and my mother, I held on to my beliefs and was not afraid of challenging long-held scientific beliefs. For example, I was told when I was sent to earn my Ph.D. degree at Cambridge University that it was not scientific to give chimpanzee names (they should have been assigned numbers) and that I could not talk of chimpanzees as having personalities, minds or emotions – as those were unique to the human animal. Luckily I had been taught that this was not true by my childhood teacher – my dog, Rusty. Very many young people have thanked me for making them realize that because I did it, they can do it too.

  1. Empowering young people to take action makes this a better world for all.

In 1991 I started Roots & Shoots, a movement that empowers young people from kindergarten through university to make this a better world. Each group chooses one of three project goals: to help people, to help other animals or to help the environment. Then they roll up their sleeves and take action. JGI educates young people about the problems we humans have inflicted on the environment and listens to the ideas they have as to how we can rectify our mistakes. We work to foster in children a sense of wonder and respect for nature. Companies like Disney and Unilever support our program and we have groups in over 130 countries. There can be no doubt that attitudes are changing around the world.

We are proud of all the accomplishments and discoveries made at Gombe in the past 55 years. But I’m nowhere near close to retiring. To learn more about the 55th anniversary of Gombe and what my Institute has planned for its future, please visit the special anniversary website: http://www.janegoodall.org/gombe55

In July 1960, at the age of 26, Jane Goodall traveled from England to what is today Tanzania and bravely entered the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. She was equipped with nothing more than a notebook and a pair of binoculars. But with her unyielding patience and characteristic optimism, she won the trust of these initially shy creatures. She managed to open a window into their sometimes strange and often familiar-seeming lives. The public was fascinated and remains so to this day. 
Today, Jane’s work revolves around inspiring action on behalf of endangered species, particularly chimpanzees, and encouraging people to do their part to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment we all share. The Jane Goodall Institute works to protect the famous chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, but recognizes this can’t be accomplished without a comprehensive approach that addresses the needs of local people who are critical to chimpanzee survival. Our community-centered conservation programs in Africa include sustainable development projects that engage local people as true partners.

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