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In her natural habitat

The state of one family of chimps is the focus of 'Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe,' a new documentary on the Animal Planet channel.

March 08, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Never refer to an animal as an "it" around Jane Goodall. The British scientist calmly but firmly interrupts a conversation when she hears the word "it" used in reference to a male chimp. Goodall informs the transgressor in a soft but firm tone that animals should always be described as a "he" or "she."

She's also not too generous toward President Bush or the overall way Western countries treat animals. "With Western science and Western religion, animals had a pretty poor deal," Goodall says with more than a trace of anger.

Goodall was just 26 when she left her native England in 1960 to study the chimpanzees in Gombe National Park on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in what is now the East African nation of Tanzania. She was chosen by the legendary paleontologist Louis Leakey, who had been searching for someone with astute observational skills and patience to study chimps in the wild. It was supposed to last just a few months, but in the ensuing four decades, it has become one of the longest continuous field studies of any animal species in its native surrounding.

That work is the basis of her new documentary, "Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe," which airs tonight on the Animal Planet cable channel.

Her studies changed the way the world looked at primates, disproving theories that they were primarily vegetarians. She discovered that they, like humans, used tools. She defied convention when she gave the Gombe chimps names instead of numbers. In several books, she's written of the chimps' close-knit family units and their distinct personalities and emotions. And, she discovered, chimps are capable of brutal warfare.

Goodall, who will celebrate her 70th birthday April 3 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, spends 300 days a year traveling the world, educating people on how to protect the environment, especially her beloved chimps and their habitats. She still wears her hair in a ponytail, but her long tresses are snowy white. She exudes a serene calmness mixed with strength.

Because of her schedule, Goodall visits Gombe only twice a year, and even less this winter, since she's been promoting "Return to Gombe" and another coming Animal Planet special. "This is my time to be in Africa," she says, chewing on nuts in her nondescript hotel room in Hollywood. "This [trip] has eaten up all of my time."

But she realizes that "Return to Gombe," airing at 5 and 8 tonight on Animal Planet, is an ideal showcase for her message of preservation and conservation. The hourlong special follows Goodall during a visit last year to Gombe. Her second special, "State of the Great Ape," is scheduled for June 12.

Life among the chimps of "F" family is in an upheaval. The longtime dominate alpha male, Frodo, who ruled with an iron paw for five years, has lost control of the family. A mysterious illness has rendered him sick and thin, so much so that he's left the group. Goodall sets out to try to find him, as well as her favorite living chimp, Gremlin, the mother of the only surviving chimp twins in Gombe.

Since making the documentary, Goodall reports that Frodo is back with the "F" family. "He has put on some weight, but he is very, very submissive." And because the dominant males in the group are equally matched, she says, no leader has emerged.

The documentary is heartbreaking because the once lush forest that was densely populated with chimps in 1960 is a pale reflection of its former self. There are only 120 chimps living at Gombe, confined to just a few protected square miles. The surrounding areas have fallen victim to rampant deforestation.

Goodall has opened four sanctuaries in Africa that are filled with orphaned chimps that lost their mothers to the thriving bush meat trade. Although once just a local industry, the market for meat and other products from wild animals, including chimps, has become a multimillion-dollar annual business, with more than a million tons of exotic animal meat being consumed internationally.

The one sanctuary seen in the film is home to 116 chimps. "It was built for 25," Goodall says. "We had to twice enlarge it even during civil wars. It is a nightmare ....Commercial hunters go in and kill elephants, gorillas and chimps. They cut up the meat, smoke it and dry it in the sun. Some restaurants in New York [serve bush meat]."

Goodall is determined to stop Africans from destroying their land and animals. "In Uganda, we have got a huge program taking snares out of the forest and an education program for children," she says.

Educating children is a particular passion, dating to her own early curiosity about nature. "When I was 10, my dream was writing books about Africa," she says with a smile. "I always thought when you learn about these exciting things, you need to share it. How else can you get the animals helped?"

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