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Now, save the world

Jane Goodall is known for her studies on chimpanzees, but she's broadened her mission. And she wants us to think before dumping that glass of water.

June 16, 2008|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer
  • ENVIRONMENTALIST: Jane Goodall, world-renowned primatologist, helps students plant a tree at the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice. "I've planted hundreds of trees around the world using just my hands," she said.
ENVIRONMENTALIST: Jane Goodall, world-renowned primatologist, helps… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO -- The small room was dark and windowless, the lights dimmed. "Jane prefers low light," said one of her staff members.

Jane Goodall, 74, walked into the room, her hands still moist after a quick stop at the restroom (she doesn't use paper towels). The renowned primatologist who began her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania nearly 50 years ago is, these days, on a broader assignment. Over the last 22 years, Goodall has traveled tirelessly, staying no more than three weeks in one place as she tries to educate Earth's top primates about environmentalism, inspire hope and get them to save their planet.

Her newest book, tentatively titled "Hope for Animals and Our World," is about animals that have been rescued from the brink of extinction. It will be out in fall 2009.

Recently, I sat down with Goodall in this dark room on the University of San Diego campus to ask her about her landmark work with chimpanzees, which began nearly 50 years ago, and also some personal questions about herself.

Goodall positioned herself on a couch, wearing a reserved outfit of beige pants, a soft turquoise turtleneck and a multicolored shawl draped over her shoulders. Her clipped-back hair is now almost all white with small slivers of gray. She is a gracefully aged replica of herself in photos decades old, wandering the Tanzanian forests, blond hair tied back.

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Is your work still centered around or focused on chimpanzees?

Not really. It's very, very important to me that we continue to study, that we do it in the right way, that there's enough money for it, that we try to protect those chimpanzees into the future by working with all the people living in poverty around the park and then hoping more and more of them will enable part of the land to regenerate so the chimps are no longer trapped as they are now; they're surrounded by cultivated fields. In five years, you get a 30-foot tree. So they're coming back, but you know, the villagers if they wanted could cut them down, there's nothing to stop them, except goodwill.

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You talked a bit about poverty as one of the reasons for habitat destruction and the disappearing chimps. How do you deal with poverty as an issue?

How you deal with poverty is to improve the lives of the people. We did not go into these villages like so much well-meaning foreign aid. We didn't go and say: 'We're really sorry for you and we brought this grant (we had a grant from the European Union), and we want to do this, this and this to make your lives better.' Rather, we sent . . . Tanzanians into the villages who sat down and listened about, 'What would you really feel would make your lives better?' And of course, it was nothing to do with conservation or the environment, at the start. It was health, which obviously ties into the environment, but that came later, and education for their children.

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You're celebrated as a primatologist, for discovering all these things about chimps, and now you're known for environmental outreach. How does this all relate back to the chimpanzees?

Because it all started when I went to a conference, where for the first time [there] were all the people doing field studies of chimps across Africa. And the pictures of their various study sites were so shocking. And I just felt I couldn't any longer sit in my little paradise, I had to try and do something.

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Is it hard being away from Gombe, from the chimpanzees?

No, it's not really hard. I mean, I think about it a lot, I see quite a lot of video. . . . I try and fill up with that atmosphere. But of course Gombe isn't the same as it was. It's not; it's no longer. You know, the Gombe I'm really nostalgic for isn't there anymore. It was those early days. I was there with my mother and one cook. And everything was new, and everything was so exciting. Now there's all these students, there's the new health regulations, there's more people, there's tourists coming in and out and the park staff have made the little trails I used to follow into sort of wide trails. I even went up onto this wonderful peak where I sat for hours and hours to find they'd, they'd put up, they'd nailed up a sort of bench across the two little trees where I used to hang my kettle when I came. And it seemed like a real violation, you know? Because I used to sit up there, and I could actually feel how I felt. But now, this simple, very simple -- it's nothing bad really -- it's just a simple piece of wood, but it's a looming presence for me.

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How can you be so optimistic?

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