Jane Goodall, from chimpanzee observation to environmental activism


British primatologist Jane Goodall is one of the main figures of ethology and anthropology today. Her scientific background and her experiences with Tanzanian chimpanzees have made her an advocate of better relations between mankind, the animals and the environment they share.


Jane Goodall is probably the most renowned primatologist of our time. Her name pops up in the mind every time we wonder about the way chimpanzees and other great apes live. Over the 40 years of her career, she has written many books, children books, and has appeared in a great number of films. The last one, Chimpanzees, is Disney Nature’s latest theatrical nature documentary (2012). Jane Goodall is now dedicating almost all of her time to giving conferences to raise awareness on animal welfare issues, as long as the preoccupying destruction of their natural habitat and biodiversity. Over the years, as the TED Talks sum it up, she has in fact

evolved – from steadfast scientist to passionate conservationist and humanitarian.

Which makes her even more famous among the general public. But she owes her celebrity not only to her longevity as a scientist and to her environmental commitments. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, she made fascinating discoveries that changed the way mankind perceived chimpanzees, other animals… and itself, eventually.


The passion of a lifetime


Jane Goodall was born in the United Kingdom in 1934, and developed a fondness for chimpanzees very early. In 1957, when she visited a friend’s farm in the Kenya highlands, she met Kenyan archaeologist and palaeontologist Louis Leaky and started to work with him – first as a secretary, then as a fellow researcher on chimpanzees. Thanks to the financial support of the man she still calls her “mentor”, she studied primate behaviour and anatomy in London, and ethology at Cambridge University, where she got her PhD. In parallel, since 1960, Goodall had been observing and studying the chimpanzees in the Gombe reserve, at the far west of Tanzania. Her findings were published in 1965 in her thesis, Behaviour of the Free-Ranging Chimpanzee. Among these findings was a striking observation: Goodall witnessed a chimp picking up twigs from a tree and removing the leaves to use the twig as a “fishing device” to catch termites from a termite mound. At the time, she explains in a TED talk, man called himself the “Toolmaker” and thought he was the only species to make and use tools. Her observation was so ground-breaking that Leaky then declared:

We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!


The strong line between man and animal was then a bit shaken. The primatologist also demonstrated that the chimps were able to feel love, compassion, despair, sadness, joy, etc. She got into the habit of giving names to the animals she observed, which gained her criticism from the scientific community who rejected any kind of emotional commitment with their research subject. But maybe it is that commitment which granted her the right to spend 22 months as a member of the chimpanzee troop, until she was forced to leave by an aggressive male.

Jane Goodall’s findings are important outside of the strict domain of science: by identifying how closer chimpanzees were to mankind than we thought, she helped install the idea that they were sensible beings we should care for. That is, among other things, care for their habitat and environment, whose state is crucial to our own quality of life too. Goodall says she wants to

bring the voice of the animal kingdom. These beings have voices that mean something.

They notably mean that we must strive to protect the planet we all share.

Photo © Shutterstock / ANDRZEJ GRZEGORCZYK

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