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If you like Jane Goodall's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Susan Butcher,
Sylvia Earle,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Edmund Hillary,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Greg Mortenson,
Sally Ride,
Richard Schultes,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Jane Goodall can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Jane Goodall's recommended reading:
The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle

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Jane Goodall Institute
Roots and Shoots

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Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall
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Jane Goodall Interview

The Great Conservationist

July 6, 2009
Singita Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa

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  Jane Goodall

What was it like, coming to Africa for the first time, arriving in Nairobi on your 23rd birthday?

Jane Goodall: I arrived off this boat, having made lots of friends, the way one does on boats, feeling really sad, because -- although a lot of us were going by train from Mombassa to Nairobi -- it was kind of like the end of this very special little piece of magic, this voyage. It was longer than normal. We had to go all the way around the Cape because the Suez War was happening, so you couldn't go through the Suez Canal. Looking out of the train window, seeing giraffes -- and I think a couple of elephants -- seemed unreal. Then I was met by my school friend and her parents, and we went straight up to where they lived in the White Highlands, and it was getting dark. But I remember, very close to the road, a giraffe. And giraffes are completely unreal creatures. When you see one for the first time in the wild close up, it's totally magic and... gosh, I was in Africa! And we saw an aardvark, which is very rare to see in the wild. In fact, I've only seen one other since, but this one just wandered across the road. I didn't realize how rare it was. And then got up to this farm house, and the very next morning was woken up and they said, "Come out." There's a footprint in the mud of this big leopard, and he'd taken one of their dogs. So it was a real introduction to wild, savage Africa.

Jane Goodall Interview Photo
You said you were sad. Why were you sad?

Jane Goodall: I was sad because when you get very close to a group of people in an unreal situation like on a boat, when nothing's really real, it's like being taken out of the world. There I was with these people that I got to know really well. It was a group of us young women and we were going to say goodbye and probably never see each other again. So it was the end of a piece of magic.

How did your meeting with Louis Leakey come about?

Jane Goodall: I'd been staying with my friend, then I got a job in Nairobi, a very boring one which my uncle had arranged before I ever set off. Being very much "family family," they wanted to know I was going to be okay. "You don't sponge on your friends, so you mustn't stay more than a month." A month and a half at the most.

So I got this job in Nairobi. And then somebody said, "If you're interested in animals you must meet Louis Leakey." So I rang up. A voice said, "I'm Leakey. What do you want?" He hated the telephone. So I said I wanted to meet him, and he said, "Come to the museum." The natural history museum. Asked me all these questions, took me around. I think he was amazed that a young girl straight from England with no degree knew so much, because I had done what my mother suggested, I'd gone on learning about Africa. I read books, been around the Natural History Museum in London. So I could answer many of his questions, and he offered me a job just like that, boom, first day. And I said, rather cheekily, I suppose, "Well, this is fantastic, but before I settle down to..." -- because it was a secretary -- " work for you, I must get out into Africa. I must. I've come all this way and I must go out into the wild and see a lion." You know.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

He let me go with himself, his wife, one other young English girl (Gillian Trace) who also worked at the museum, about five Kenyans, to what is now a very famous place, Olduvai Gorge, where many human fossils have been found. But in those days, only animal fossils. So it was totally unknown, completely wild. There were no people there. There were no roads, there was no trail, there was no track. It was nothing. And the Leakeys had been there about four summers running, because they were convinced that they would find early human remains, which of course they did, but when I went there they hadn't yet. So there it was, wild untouched Africa. And after this hard work of digging for fossils under the hot sun, Gillian and I were allowed out onto the plains walking, and there were lions, there were rhinos. We just were the two of us. I don't think other people would be allowed to do that today. It was magic. And that I think is when Louis decided I was the person he'd been looking for.

There you were, working with fossils instead of live animals, which you'd dreamed about all your life. How did you feel about that?

Jane Goodall: When I was at Olduvai, I wasn't there because I wanted to be a paleontologist, but I was in the middle of the Africa I dreamed about. It was one of the most magic times of my life. I wasn't totally thrilled with digging for fossils, but I was totally thrilled with digging for fossils in the middle of the wilderness in Africa. And just every so often, I would hold a bone in my hand and I would almost seem to... it would be almost like a mystical experience. I remember once holding the tusks of one of these big prehistoric pigs and just there stood the pig. And I could smell it and see the color and hear the sound of the pig. And then I came back to reality and it was the bone in my hand. But it was the walking out on the plains, the smell, the animals, the wilderness, the wildness. It was just complete magic. And afterwards, Louis told me that he deliberately selected someone with no degree because he wanted somebody whose mind was, as he said, unbiased by the reductionist attitude of the animal behavior people of that time in Europe, the ethologists. He didn't tell me that, he just... that's what his idea was.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Resulting from that dig, and your relationship with the Leakeys, a new project developed. Perhaps it was a project that Dr. Leakey had planned all along, but it took some time to link you to this project. Can you tell me a little bit about how that happened?

Jane Goodall: I think it was the day when I got back to the little camp, in the evening with Gillian, and we'd just encountered this young male lion -- about two years old, his mane beginning to sprout -- and he'd followed us -- oh, I don't know, I mean the length of a long room, which was a bit scary but it was really exciting. And I was telling Louis about this, and I think that's when he realized I was the person he'd been looking for to go and try and learn about chimpanzees in the wild. Because his reckoning was, "They are our closest living relatives." And he didn't know back then quite how close biologically they actually are to us, but it was known they were close. And so he argued that if somebody would go and learn about them in the wild, if we found behavior that was the same or very similar in chimpanzees today and humans today, then if we agreed that there was a common ancestor about six, seven million years ago, then maybe that behavior was present in the common ancestor. And therefore, we brought it with us, all up through our evolutionary pathway, and that would help him to have a better feeling for how early humans behaved, the creatures whose fossil remains he was digging up. That's why he wanted somebody to study them, and he asked if I would. Well yes!

That was it. I couldn't have dreamed that I would get the opportunity to study something like a chimpanzee with no qualifications. It seemed unreal. He didn't tell me that he wanted me because I didn't have qualifications. He told me that later. It took over a year to find the money.

Who was going to give money to a crazy project like a young girl straight from England, no degree, going out into a potentially dangerous situation? And finally, he found some money for six months. And then the second problem, which was, I think, harder to overcome, was that in those days what we call Tanzania today was Tanganyika. It was a British protectorate, part of the British colonial empire, and the British authorities would not take responsibility for this young girl going out in the bush alone. But in the end, they said, "Well, if she brings a companion..." So who volunteered to come for four of those six months? We had money for six months. For four of those months, my same amazing mother! She packed up in England. She came out. We had so little money for this expedition, a couple of tin plates and cups. Food in tins, very little at that. One cook; we had to have somebody out there. An ex-army tent. No sewn-in groundsheet like all the fancy tents have today, just a piece of canvass on the ground and the flaps at the bottom you rolled up and tied with strings. All the centipedes and spiders and snakes could come in.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Jane Goodall Interview Photo
Jane Goodall Interview Photo

My mother was amazing, and she kept camp. I think she played two really important roles. One, she boosted my morale, because in those early days the chimpanzees ran away as soon as they saw me. They'd never seen a white ape before. They're very conservative. They would vanish. And she would say, in the evening when I was a bit despondent, "But think what you are learning. What they're feeding on. The kind of sized groups they travel in. How they make beds at night, bending down the branches..." all the things I'd seen through my binoculars. And so she boosted my morale. And then, secondly, she started a little clinic. She wasn't a doctor or a nurse, but my whole family was very medical. Her brother had given her masses of simple aspirins and bandages and things like that. So she would treat the fishermen who had camped along the lake shore. And because she would spend hours with them, doing a saline drip on the tropical ulcer, she became known as a white witch doctor. And she established, for me and all my students, this great relationship with all the local people.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Before you actually went to Gombe, when Dr. Leakey was still getting the funding in order, he wanted you to go back to school. Is that right?

Jane Goodall: While Louis Leakey was finding the money, getting the arrangements made, getting permission, I went back to England and I worked with a very famous primatologist called John Napier, who taught me a little bit about primates, but that was just in his office. I set off ahead of my mother. So when Louis Leakey had got everything ready, I was out there helping with the last-minute arrangements, and finally all was organized.

My mother flew out to join me and we drove from Nairobi all the way to Kigoma in a short wheel base Land Rover, horribly overloaded, driven by the botanist from the museum in Nairobi. It was an amazing kind of a journey. It took three days. And when we arrived in Kigoma, it was to find that the Congo had erupted and all the refugees were coming over the lake from what was then the Belgian Congo. Then it became Zaire. Now it's the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. But anyway, they were coming over Lake Tanganyika and everything was in chaos. I wasn't allowed to go straight off to the Gombe National Park. Instead, we were stuck in Kigoma helping to feed refugees, and finally we got the permission to go.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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This page last revised on Aug 20, 2009 16:01 EDT
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