Unit Eight: Jane Goodall

Interview: Jane Goodall

Inspired by her love of animals and her desire to write about them, an 18-year-old Jane Goodall traveled by boat from her home in England to the shores of Africa. There she met the famed anthropologist and paleontologist Louis S.B. Leakey, who hired her as an assistant at Nairobi's Natural History Museum. Dr. Leakey later encouraged her to begin a field study observing chimpanzees at a remote site in East Africa. In 1960 Jane Goodall made her first trip to the Gombe Stream Reserve (now the Gombe National Park) in Tanzania. What she thought might be a three-year study became a life-long mission to understand chimpanzee behavior and share that understanding with others.

Dr. Goodall's extraordinary discoveries have been closely followed by the world in her six published books, her numerous appearances on National Geographic Society television specials, and her frequent lecture tours.

In this interview, Dr. Goodall shares some fascinating stories and magical moments from her experience studying our closest relatives in their natural habitats.

Dr. Goodall, why did you make this long trip from Tanzania to New York?

This particular occasion is to receive one of the centennial awards of the National Geographic Society. I just happen to be one of the scientists who's been involved with them for a very long time.

You've just finished an interview with Time magazine, and you do a lot of public speaking. How do you view the responsibility of a scientist to public education?

I feel a sense of responsibility to the public. Then, too, I owe a great deal to the chimpanzees; they have given me so much. Chimpanzees need our help. They are endangered in the wild and often misused in captivity. To effect change it is often necessary to get the support of the public. Only if the public understands about the animals and the issues will they care enough to help, and they can understand only if I share information with them.

When a scientist has celebrity status, are there special problems and benefits?

The main problem is needing to be in so many places at the same time, particularly now that I'm involved in trying to enforce more humane conditions for primates in medical research labs. When I'm asked to attend a conference "because it could make a difference" ... well, I have to go if I can. It all means I get less time to do field research at Gombe. And I spend days and days in airplanes. Because a great deal of the cruelty inflicted on nonhuman animals is due to ignorance, I feel it is important to spend time with the media, to write books for children, and to talk at schools in addition to the college and public lectures. And this is not only in the United States but in Europe as well. However, so long as it really does make a difference, even a small one, it's worthwhile.

One of your current projects is the ChimpanZoo program. Can you tell us about that?

In 1984, I suddenly realized that chimp groups in zoos would make ideal subjects for study. Students, keepers, and volunteers could all become involved. The research would help zoo management improve their exhibits, which would, in turn, benefit the chimps. Finally, the project would create growing understanding of chimpanzees, their complex personalities, and their intelligence. The zoos that I approached were enthusiastic. Now, in 1989, fifteen zoos are committed to statistical data collection, and many others are contributing in a less formal way. Eventually, we shall be able to compare behavior in the different sites: a cross-cultural study.

What is the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation? And how is it related to the Gombe Research Center, the actual site of your research?

The Jane Goodall Institute was formed in 1976. We support research at Gombe and also contribute to chimpanzee research in other parts of Africa and to the ChimpanZoo program. We are working to enforce better living conditions for chimps in medical research labs. We are also launching a series of education programs for children, students, and the general public concerning our relationship with nonhuman animals in general and chimpanzees in particular.

What facilities exist at the Gombe center now, and what is the typical camp population like today?

I have a cement block house with a grass-covered, galvanized iron roof. It's simple; there's no running water or electricity. The windows are made of weld-mesh to keep the baboons and chimps out. The day-to-day research is carried on by Tanzanian field assistants. They have their own little "village," which, like my house, is on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. About half a mile inland is "chimp camp," two aluminum huts where we still feed bananas to the chimps (each chimp gets about six bananas once every ten days or so). And those really are all the facilities we have at Gombe.

Your childhood dream was to study animals in Africa. How did that interest develop at such a young age?

I was born that way. When I was 2 years old, I once took worms to bed with me. My mother was wonderful. When she found them, instead of saying, "Yuck! How disgusting!" and throwing them out, she said, "Jane, if you leave them there, they'll die. They need the damp earth." So I gathered them up as fast as I could and ran into the garden with them to save them. That early interest continued. I watched insects and birds in the garden and, as I got older, made notes about them. Then I began reading books about Africa. Dr. Dolittle and Tarzan, stories about African animals. By the time I was 8, I knew that I had to go to Africa.

How did you finance your first trip to Africa?

By giving up my very fascinating job with documentary filmmaking in London and working as a waitress. It paid better.

How did Louis Leakey first learn about you?

I heard about him and went to see him. He asked me all kinds of questions and was clearly impressed with my knowledge of African animals and offered me a job as his secretary-assistant. Soon after that I accompanied him and his wife on their annual dig at Olduvai Gorge. That was in 1957, before the first of the hominid remains had been found there. It was the Africa of my dreams come true: utterly remote and wild with no car tracks but our own. There were lions and rhinos and giraffes all around us.

What was Leakey's vision in first sending you to study the chimpanzees of Gombe?

Louis told me he had been looking for 10 years for the right person to go and study mankind's closest living relative in the wild, hoping the results would give him clues about the behavior of early humans. Today we take for granted his logic, that behaviors shared by modern man and modern chimpanzee are likely to have been present in the common ancestor and, therefore, in early man himself. But at that time it was a new approach, one of the signs of Leakey's genius. I was concerned that I had no college degree. In his eyes this was a plus: He wanted a person whose mind was uncluttered by scientific theory.

You've written that you do not personally find it necessary to justify the study of chimpanzees by suggesting that the results will help us in our long search to comprehend human behavior. Would you please explain what you mean by that?

Well, first let me make it clear that I do believe that the results of the research help us to better understand some aspects of human behavior. But equally I believe that the study of creatures as complex and fascinating as chimpanzees is important in its own right. In fact, the most important spin-off of the chimp research is probably the humbling effect it has on us who do the research. We are not, after all, the only aware, reasoning beings on this planet.

What can ethology, the study of animal behavior in the field, contribute to general ecology?

You can't understand the ecology of a given area without knowing how the animal species behave, how much territory they need, and so on. It is particularly important to understand the needs of the various animal species if one is to effectively manage a reserve or national park. The sciences of ecology and ethology are interdependent.

Record-keeping at Gombe includes weighing chimpanzees. How do you weigh a wild chimpanzee?

At chimp camp we have a spring balance suspended on a chain between two trees. A rope hangs from this, near the top of which is attached a tin can. When we want to weigh a chimp, we put a banana in the can. The chimp then climbs the rope, and we read the weight off the scale.

Dr. Goodall, you once said that being accepted by the chimpanzees was one of the most momentous episodes of your life. How did you first earn that acceptance?

Well, when I first got to Gombe, the chimps would run off, even if I was 500 yards away. It was rather depressing. Then I discovered "the peak," a wonderful vantage point with a view over two valleys. I stopped trying to get close to the chimps. Instead, I climbed up to the peak day after day and sat there watching through my binoculars. As I gradually pieced together the daily behavior patterns of the chimps, they slowly got used to me and eventually lost their fear. Then I was able to move ever closer. Never shall I forget the day when I approached to within 20 yards of David Greybeard and Goliath. They just glanced at me and went on grooming. I was accepted. Even now, 29 years later, I never take my relationship with the chimps for granted. When I sit among a group in the forest and a mother will allow her infant to sleep a few feet away from me, I am overwhelmed by the trust that the chimpanzees have in me. It's a terrific responsibility. I must never allow that trust to be broken.

You've also said that if you'd known the study would have continued for so long, you would not have established such close contact with the chimpanzees. Would you please explain?

First, let me say how the contact came about. Can you imagine how thrilled I was when, after struggling for so many months to get anywhere near the chimpanzees, I was actually able to touch some of them? There were moments I shall never forget, such as when David Greybeard first allowed me to groom him; when Flo let her infant reach out and touch me; when adolescent Figan joined me in a game, let me tickle him, and laughed. I would not have forgone those moments for anything.

But when I realized that with the help of students, the research could continue indefinitely, I knew I had to distance myself from the chimps. For one thing, I wanted to affect their natural behavior as little as possible. For another, chimps are much stronger than humans. Too close a relationship, I thought, might become dangerous, might destroy the inherent respect that most wild chimps have for humans. Indeed, Figan obviously learned when he played with me that he was stronger than I was. Thereafter he sometimes knocked observers over during his charging displays. We have had the same problem with some other particularly fearless chimps.

You have discovered that chimpanzees not only use tools, but make tools. What kind of tools?

They modify blades of grass, leafy twigs, strips of bark, and sticks to make them more suitable for a variety of purposes. Chimpanzees use more objects as tools in more contexts than any other creature except ourselves. At Gombe, they use grass stems, twigs, and so on to extract termites from their mounds. Long, thin sticks are used to fish for army ants and strong, thick ones to enlarge the entrances of bees' or birds' nests. Leaves are chewed, making them more absorbent, to sop up rainwater from tree hollows. Leaves are also used to wipe dirt from the body. Sticks are flailed and rocks hurled in aggressive contexts.

Most fascinating is the finding that in all the different areas where chimps have been studied across Africa, they have developed different tool-using traditions, or cultures, each one obviously having been originally invented by some chimpanzee genius in the past. Chimpanzees are able to learn new behaviors by watching the performance of others, then imitating and practicing. Each tool-using pattern can thus be handed down from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to document the appearance and spread of an innovative act, but I feel sure that we shall if the study goes on long enough.

Earlier you mentioned grooming behavior of chimpanzees, their picking flakes of skin off one another. What do you think is the social function of this behavior?

Social grooming is the single most important social activity in the chimp community. It improves bad relationships and maintains good ones. A few brief grooming movements serve to reassure, to appease a higher-ranking individual, or to calm a subordinate. A mother pacifies her nervous or hurt child by embracing and then grooming him or her. Adult males enjoy particularly long grooming sessions. This is important. Males do sometimes compete quite vigorously for dominance rank, and their relationships may then become tense. Yet it is crucial that they be able to cooperate in order to jointly protect the territory of their community. It's the long sessions of social grooming, enabling them to spend time in friendly physical contact, that permits them to relax after periods of social tension.

You mentioned dominance hierarchies among males in chimpanzee social groups. How is this hierarchy established and maintained?

Some male chimpanzees devote much time and effort to improving or maintaining their position in the hierarchy. For the most part, the male uses the impressive charging display, during which he races across the ground, hurls rocks, drags branches, leaps up and shakes the vegetation. In other words, he makes himself look larger and more dangerous than he may actually be. In this way he can often intimidate a rival without having to risk an actual fight, which could be dangerous for him as well as for his rival. The more frequent, the more vigorous, and the more imaginative his charging display, the more likely it is that he will attain a high social position.

What are the benefits of a high position?

This is an interesting question. A high-ranking male has prior access to the best food, but this is not of great benefit since, if food is short, the chimps typically move about in ones and twos. He can usurp a choice resting place, but he almost never does. He can inhibit other males from copulating with a female in estrus when they are all in a group together, but there is a mechanism in chimp society that enables even a low-ranking male to appropriate a sexually attractive female. All he has to do is persuade her to follow him, away from the other males, to some peripheral area of the community range.

Of course, this is not always easy. For one thing he must initiate this consortship at a stage of her estrus cycle when she is not interesting to higher-ranking males. She will not want to go with him, and he may have to use considerable force. Even when he has got her to his area of choice, he must keep her there, often against her will, until she ovulates. However, if he has the social skills to accomplish all of this, he has a good chance of impregnating her. This means that every male has the opportunity to pass on his genes, a fact that, without doubt, has contributed to the pronounced individual variation that we find among chimpanzees.

But we are still left with the question: What is the advantage of high rank for a male chimpanzee? It's almost as though humans aren't the only creatures who value high rank for its own sake, and the power that it gives. We don't understand why the chimps devote so much time, effort, and risk. What are the evolutionary benefits, the reproductive benefits?

Females have a hierarchy, too, varying according to whether or not the females are accompanied by their adult son or other offspring. Also, a female in estrus may be more assertive. The reproductive advantage to the high-ranking female is, however, clear. She can better appropriate choice food items and thus make her milk richer. In addition, her offspring are likely to become high-ranked since she will support them. In the supportive family group situation, all have a better chance of survival.

During your time at Gombe, you observed the splitting of a social group into two factions. What were the consequences of that split?

Soon after the split, the males of the larger group, which remained in the north, began to make raids, in groups of three or more, into the area taken over by the southern subgroup. If they encountered a single individual, they chased him or her and attacked savagely. Fights between members of the same community may look ferocious, but they seldom last as long as half a minute, and they rarely result in wounding. By contrast, the assaults on members of this newly formed community were brutal, lasting between 10 and 20 minutes and resulting in the incapacitation of the victims, who were left to die. Within a four-year period all the members of the newly formed social group had been killed, or had disappeared and were presumed killed.

Laboratory studies indicate that chimpanzees have advanced cognitive abilities. Is there evidence from field studies that such cognitive abilities actually have adaptive value?

Yes, and this is most obvious in relation to social awareness. In chimpanzee society, individuals are continually separating and meeting again. This means, for example, that a young male may, at one moment, be the highest-ranking individual in a group of females, able to bully them at will; but then, if other males arrive, he may find himself the lowest-ranking male. He must be able to adjust to this change at once. If he can't, he may be chastised by one of the higher-ranking males for inappropriate behavior.

Then too there is a constant need for decision making. Suppose a chimpanzee hears others calling on the far side of the valley. Because each chimp has a recognizable voice, he will know who is there. He must then make some decisions: Do I reply or do I stay quiet? Do I join those guys, do I stay where I am, or do I hasten in the opposite direction? In the morning when a chimpanzee wakes, he must decide: Do I go and eat figs with David Greybeard, or do I eat leaves by myself? Of course, other primates need to make some choices too, but usually to a lesser degree since they spend most of their time in stable troops.

Due to their highly developed social intelligence, chimpanzees are often able to get their way, even when set against much higher-ranked individuals. A subordinate can withhold information from a dominant. He can, for example, sit gazing directly away from a delectable fruit (if he looked at it, this would serve as a cue for the others) until the dominant departs, and then collect his prize. Or he can mate with a female in secret, without the dominant male's knowledge, by beckoning to her from behind some vegetation. I could give many other examples of this sort of behavior, all pointing to the adaptive value of well-developed cognitive abilities. Technical problem solving, involving the use of tools to obtain food that would not otherwise be available, is clearly adaptive as well.

Is there any evidence for altruistic behavior in chimpanzee populations?

Yes, indeed. Let me give an example. We had an epidemic of viral pneumonia in which one of the female chimpanzees died, leaving a 3-year-old, sickly infant named Mel. Since chimps nurse for five years, Mel was still dependent on his mother's milk. Spindle, a nonrelated, 12-year-old male, formed an incredible bond with Mel. Spindle cared for the infant, carrying him and sharing his food with him, almost as though he were his mother. Sometimes Spindle risked being attacked himself as he tried to protect Mel, as when he seized him from the path of a displaying adult male. On several occasions, Spindle was actually bowled over when he interfered in this way. The relationship lasted more than a year, and there is little doubt but that Spindle saved Mel's life. Mel is still alive today.

What seems to be the fate of forest communities in Tanzania and other parts of Africa? Is chimpanzee habitat already threatened?

Chimpanzee habitat is dwindling rapidly as the great rain forests of Africa disappear to make way for farms and villages, and as timber merchants plunder the trees. But it's not only habitat destruction that is endangering the chimpanzees. In some countries they are hunted for food, or captured and sold to dealers for the pet trade, the entertainment industries, and for biomedical research. Only infants are wanted; adults are too big and dangerous. Infants are traditionally captured by shooting their mothers. The weapons are usually inefficient. Many mothers are wounded and die later, along with their infants. Other infants are too badly hurt at the time of capture to survive. Many of those that reach the holding stations alive fall sick because they are maintained in nonhygienic conditions with inappropriate food. Others die on the journey to their final destinations. We estimate that for every infant that survives, up to ten individuals perish.

Because it was, at one time, believed that chimpanzees were the only suitable animal model for the study of AIDS, there was a sudden new demand for wild youngsters. Even in conservation-minded Tanzania, where chimpanzees are protected by law, there was an increase in poaching for a while. Even so, Tanzanian chimps are relatively secure, for there are two national parks created specially for their protection, and they also live in a number of forest reserves.

How can your studies of chimpanzee life history and behavior help African governments make good decisions about habitat preservation?

Well, for one thing, our research shows clearly that it is necessary to protect sufficient habitat to support at least five chimpanzee communities: 250 to 400 individuals. This would provide a reasonable gene pool. Our experience at Gombe also suggests that when smaller populations are conserved, great care must be taken to protect the chimpanzees from being infected with human diseases, which can occur as a result of uncontrolled tourism. It might be necessary, too, to protect nearby farmers from plantation raids by chimpanzees who have become habituated to humans. In 1986, a group of scientists established the Committee for the Conservation and Care of Chimpanzees (the Four C's). The Jane Goodall Institute is a major financial supporter of the Four C's. Under the chairmanship of Dr. Geza Teleki, the committee is planning surveys of the chimpanzees throughout their range, with a view to creating protected areas across Africa.

Dr. Goodall, how long will you stay at Gombe?

As long as I can get there physically. And even if I can't get there myself, there is, of course, the team of Tanzanian field assistants following the chimpanzees daily, recording their behavior. They are using 8-millimeter video cameras now so that I can actually see what the chimps have been doing when I get back.

What advice would you give students who share your interest in animal behavior and would like to follow in your footsteps as field researchers?

I get hundreds of letters asking for advice. I tell these young people the truth: that this field is becoming increasingly competitive and funding for field research increasingly difficult to obtain. It's really important to work hard and get good grades at school, then go on and get a college education. Of course, I began my study without such qualifications, but it was different in those days, just after World War II. Today, academic credentials are all but essential. But having explained the difficulties, I always add, "If you really and truly want to devote your life to the study of animals, somehow you will find a way to do it." I'm convinced of that.

After all, I was told that it was not possible for a young girl to go out into the bush in Africa and study animals. But I found a way. And so I end up: "Be prepared to take any opportunity to further your goal, even if it seems somewhat indirect. If you remain true to your underlying ambition, you will somehow find a way to get back on course. In the meantime, read books on the subject outside of school. Try to get involved in any programs that are offered that relate to the study of animals."

Of course, the ChimpanZoo program is a natural for anybody interested in nonhuman primates. Many of the students who have taken part have written me glowing letters about their experiences. Anyone who is seriously interested should write for advice to Dr. Virginia Landau of the Jane Goodall Institute. She is a primatologist and coordinates the ChimpanZoo program. She also has a list of schools that offer good graduate programs in primate behavior.

No young person should leave school feeling that to be a good scientist it's so important to be objective that it's absolutely impossible to become emotionally involved with the animals being studied. It is this reasoning that has led to the inhumanity we find in some animal research labs. It is perfectly possible to record data objectively despite feelings of personal involvement. It simply requires discipline. So often today young people get the message that in order to be a really good scientist you must be a scientist first and a human being second. That misconception must be eradicated from our society.

©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Benjamin Cummings