After one of the hardest hikes of my life, I stepped into a small clearing and turned to see a full-grown male chimp perched in a tree just above and behind me. He was close enough to attack if he’d wanted to. Thankfully, he didn’t want to…
I grew up reading National Geographic magazine from cover to cover every month. There I learned about diverse cultures, amazing ecosystems, and drank in vivid images of wild animals. It’s also where I, like many of you, first experienced meeting Jane Goodall. The amazing Jane Goodall. It’s one of the things that shaped my attitudes toward health, the environment and our place in the world.
It’s not surprising my wife Cheryl and I jumped at the chance to join a dear friend who was organizing a small group trip to Tanzania to meet Jane and the chimps she studied and has grown to love. The surprising thing was there were two spaces left and they accepted us on the trip. As the details unfolded we found out we would also have the opportunity to meet many of the good people running the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and have the opportunity to see first hand the impact they are making in Tanzania.
JGI has three main arms:
Most of us know Jane for her work with chimps. It’s ground breaking and opened our eyes to our relationship with the world. It’s also what helped Jane see the importance of whole ecosystems.
When she first started observing the chimps in the 1960s their habitat was rich and extensive, but as time went on, people began encroaching on the chimps’ territory. Jane was understandably upset, but began asking why this was happening.
Jane and her organization made an incredible decision. Instead of trying to convince people to change their behavior, they went to the people to ask them what they needed. They found that overwhelmingly the reason people were destroying the jungle was they were in crisis, especially as their population grew. They needed wood for fuel and they needed land to grow food. The jungle was the logical place for them to get both.
But this practice was short sighted. There is only so much jungle and when it’s gone terrible things happen, like mud slides when it rains. The question was. how do you help people see this and decide to change? The answer was, ask the people.
Over the next decades they were able to establish programs that the people helped design and the people run to educate and empower communities. Their programs include sophisticated reforestation and peer education on birth control.
After a morning learning about their programs they showed us a section of the jungle that was completely bare a decade ago. It’s now lush and teaming with wildlife.
As a pediatrician, I was particularly impressed with their Roots and Shoots program. During our time in Tanzania we visited several program sites and met scores of middle school and high school age kids who were fully engaged in campaigns they designed to make a difference in the world for people, other animals and the environment. These campaigns are completed by teams of kids working together with adult supervision, but limited input. The kids are the driving force behind Roots and Shoots.
While we were in Tanzania, we spent an afternoon hearing reports (complete with Power Point presentations) about their work. The afternoon culminated in a tree planting. It’s hard to explain the power of joining a teen to plant a tree, but I felt as if I was planting part of myself in Tanzania.
Since 1960, when Jane first came to Gombe, chimp research has been a large part of her work. That work continues on with scientists and naturalists observing the Gombe chimp families on an ongoing basis.
JGI’s work with chimps expanded in 2006 with rescue centers. The centers provide a safe environment for chimps who have been an abusive or dangerous environment including the bushmeat trade, pet trade, entertainment and zoos.
The chimps are rehabilitated by loving caretakers whose goal is to provide a safe place for the chimps to learn the skills they need to be reintroduced to a life as close to natural as possible.
…That morning we left camp early. The chimp researchers had tracked a family group the day before and knew where their nest was for the night. The researchers arrived at the nest before sunrise so they could keep an eye on the group. As we approached the group was happily playing at the base of a waterfall, but before we could get near they took to the trees happily swinging their way to the top of the falls. This was an easy climb for them, but not for us.
Our guides laid out our options. They knew where the chimps were, but there was no trail to the top of the falls. We would have to climb on loose soil, through dense overgrowth if we wanted to follow them. Or we could give up.
We were not giving up. But what a climb. And what a reward when we got to the top.
After my first encounter, I slowly moved into position and sat a “safe” distance from the chimp.
Over the next hour or so we witnessed two males grooming each other, several young chimps scampering up and down trees and a mother with her baby. It’s not an exaggeration to say it was magical.
Jane Goodall is the woman who redefined what it means to be a man. At age 26 she began studying the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Her observations of their social structure, individual personalities, diet, and particularly their use of tools revolutionized not only the way we think of chimpanzees, but how we define being human.
At 83 she’s a brilliant, motivated scientist with a passion to save not only the chimps, but all of us and the environment that is our home. This became beyond amazing when we had dinner and drinks with her in her home (take-out vegetarian Indian food) and reflected together late into the night about our trip – and the exciting challenges ahead of us in inspiring our youth to see themselves as part of nature, not distinct from it.
The current situation is precarious on many fronts. The peril and also the potential are great. We have but a brief window to get the job done. We can, and I believe we will.