Jane Goodall is mostly famous for her work with chimpanzees. Her greater feat, writes lifelong admirer Nicola Toki, is showing that we are deeply connected to the living world around us – that through kindness, we can turn things around for our planet.
“I have one wish for people in NZ. And that would be that they would be as passionate about the environment as they are about rugby.” – Jane Goodall
This week Wellington has been heaving with rugby fans as the Lions continue their tour of the country and thousands of punters, many having travelled halfway around the world, flock to the streets, the stadiums, the pubs and hotels as they follow their heroes around the country.
But for a smaller group of fans, one quietly spoken 83-year-old from the United Kingdom who has dedicated her life to conservation has had people clamouring to hear talk about her life as a primatologist, environmentalist and global ambassador for nature.
I was lucky enough to head to Te Papa on Wednesday night to attend the launch of the Jane Goodall Institute in New Zealand. It was a very impressive crowd, including Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy, as well as former prime minister Helen Clark on stage in support of Jane and the Institute. The audience heaved with passionate and well-known supporters of the environment, from Wellington and beyond. The air rippled with excitement and as we stood for a rousing rendition of “Te Aroha” I couldn’t have thought of a more fitting waiata than to sing “Love lifts us up” to welcome this woman who has demonstrated that concept for almost 60 years.
Dr Jane Goodall was the first person to prove that chimpanzees, our nearest kin, were nearer and dearer than we had ever been prepared to admit. She spent years of her life living among them in Gombe, Tanzania where she discovered that chimpanzees used tools and had unique personalities and behaviour. The discovery of tool-use by chimps turned our view of humans as somehow separate from other apes on its axis. Her supervisor, palaeontologist Louis Leakey, wrote at the time: “We must now redefine man, redefine tools, or accept chimpanzees as human!”
And it is that part that set Jane on a journey, from a girl who loved animals and Africa, to a woman determined to show that we are deeply connected to the living world around us and that every individual can make a difference.
Upon discovering at a conference in the 1980s the large-scale destruction of chimpanzee habitat, the bush-meat trade that saw them hunted and eaten, the shooting of mother chimpanzees so that babies could be stolen and sold as pets, and learning that chimps were being kept in laboratories for science experiments, Jane decided to draw the line. As she told the crowd at Te Papa, “I went into that conference a scientist, and came out an activist.” Thank goodness she did.
When Jane, a self-confessed shy girl from England, spoke, we listened in rapt attention. She began her speech by bossing all the dignitaries lined up behind her to come and sit in front, because she said it was rude for her to speak with her back to them. Nobody dared to argue, and I’ve rarely seen such swift shuffling on a stage.
I’ll be honest. I was a complete fangirl in this audience, locked on to the glittering eyes of this diminutive woman, who, through her passion, belief, and unwavering determination to never give up, has inspired me since childhood.
I wasn’t the only one overwhelmed. I saw a young wildlife veterinarian student spend half an hour waiting for her turn to meet Jane, after which she burst into happy tears. When I was offered the chance to meet her, I was struck dumb and couldn’t manage much more than a cuddle and a shared smile. Weta Workshop’s creative director Gino Acevedo was also overcome when it was his turn to present Jane with a surprise gift, a bust of “Caesar” from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (at this point Jane interrupted, telling Gino and Sir Richard Taylor that she couldn’t wait to see this movie, and in fact wanted to see it before it was released). As he handed this and his other heartfelt creations to her, he told her that as a Mexican kid growing up in the States he had always had a crush on her. To echo Gino, I think we all did a little bit on Wednesday.
Jane’s message was simple and clear: through kindness, connecting people with their natural world, by recognising that we are all an intrinsic part of this web of life, and not outsiders looking in, we can reverse the dire path of our planet.
As someone who has also spent her life telling stories of our natural world, and doing my best to draw New Zealanders’ attention to the myriad special creatures, plants and fungi (and yes, even slime molds), there was plenty in Jane’s speech that was familiar to me. I laughed and nodded as she talked of being told off by professors and contemporaries at Cambridge for giving the chimps she studied names instead of numbers (I have had the same arguments over albatross!). Her view that we must always hold on to hope and not be overwhelmed by helplessness, is one I also hold dear. New Zealand has one of the highest proportions of threatened species in the world, yet 70% of us believe everything is fine out there. To explain to people the challenges our wildlife faces without depressing them, or glossing over the challenge, is the fine line we all walk and one that Jane has excelled at.
In short, she was warm, kind, inspirational and staunch beyond words.
For those of us in the quest to protect nature, to be guardians, kaitiaki, champions and to give voice to the living world that, in New Zealand, quite simply defines us, it’s important to grab hold of those bursts of inspiration. And when it all comes down to it, what we are talking about, while based in science, and ecology, and geography, and demography, and sociology, what we are talking about, plainly and simply, is love.
Through Jane’s endless belief that we can turn things around, she has proved it all over the world with her Jane Goodall Institute, which can be found in over 140 countries, including now New Zealand. The Roots and Shoots programme, designed for young people to connect to their environment through science and a humanitarian and conservation approach, now boasts over 150 000 participants. Back in Gombe National Park, where at one time the forests surrounding the park had been destroyed, the local community have found the value in restoring their part of the world, and the forests have been replanted, providing cleaner water, better health, more habitat for chimpanzees and other creatures, as well a better future for local children. We could learn a lot from that.
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.” —Jane Goodall
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.