Half a century ago, she journeyed into the Tanzanian jungle to change how the world saw chimpanzees. Today the world’s most famous conservationist is on a mission to save their lives.
Jane Goodall was already on a London dock in March 1957 when she realized that her passport was missing. In just a few hours, she was due to depart on her first trip to Africa. A school friend had moved to a farm outside Nairobi and, knowing Goodall’s childhood dream was to live among the African wildlife, invited her to stay with the family for a while. Goodall, then 22, saved for two years to pay for her passage to Kenya: waitressing, doing secretarial work, temping at the post office in her hometown, Bournemouth, on England’s southern coast, during the holiday rush. She had spent her last few days in London saying goodbyes and picking up a few things for the trip at Peter Jones, the department store in Chelsea. Now all this was for naught, it seemed. The passport must have fallen out of her purse somewhere.
It’s hard not to wonder how subsequent events in her life — rather consequential as they have turned out to be to conservation, to science, to our sense of ourselves as a species — might have unfolded differently had someone not found her passport, along with an itinerary from Cook’s, the travel agency, folded inside, and delivered it to the Cook’s office. An agency representative, documents in hand, found her on the dock. “Incredible,” Goodall told me last month, recalling that day. “Amazing.”
Excited and apprehensive, she boarded the ship, the Kenya Castle, with her mother and uncle, and together they inspected the vessel, circling its decks, looking out the porthole in the room she would occupy for the better part of a month. Then her family departed, and at 4 in the afternoon, the ship cast off. Twenty-four hours later, as most of the passengers were suffering from seasickness on their traverse across the Bay of Biscay, Jane Goodall was at the prow of the ship — “as far forward as one could get,” she wrote to her family. Her letter also recorded, in a detailed manner that foreshadowed the keen observational skills she would bring to her research as well as the literary bent she would deploy in reaching a broad audience, how the sea changed color as the bow rose and fell with the waves. “The sea is dark inky blue, then it rises up a clear transparent blue green, and then it breaks in white and sky blue foam. But best of all, some of this foam is forced back under the wave from which it broke, and this spreads out under the surface like the palest blue milk, all soft and hazy at the edge.”
Because the Suez Canal was closed — war broke out on the Sinai Peninsula several months earlier — the ship took the long route, around the Cape of Good Hope. Three weeks passed before the Kenya Castle reached Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean. Goodall was sad to leave her cabinmates and the other friends she made on the journey: an engineer, a governess, a man volunteering at a leper colony. But she had waited a long time for this moment. She was just 8 when, inspired by the stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle, she resolved to live in Africa one day.
Within two months of her arrival, Goodall met the paleontologist Louis Leakey — Nairobi was a small town for its white population in those days — and he immediately offered her a job at the natural-history museum where he was curator. He spent much of the next three years testing her capacity for patient, repetitive work, in particular during a summer expedition of several weeks to Olduvai Gorge, where Leakey’s wife, Mary, also a paleontologist, would later find the hominid fossils that proved the African origins of homo sapiens. Goodall’s job was to rise at dawn and spend hours on her hands and knees, clearing away dirt and rock with a pick, in July and August, two degrees south of the Equator. Evenings meant hours listening to Leakey’s theories about physical anthropology and his ideas of how they might be proved.
He happened to believe in a hypothesis first put forth by Charles Darwin — and by 1957, largely forgotten — that humans and chimpanzees share an evolutionary ancestor. Close study of chimpanzees in the wild, he thought, might tell us something about that common progenitor. He was, in other words, looking for someone to live among Africa’s wild animals. One night at Olduvai, he told Goodall that he knew just the place where she could do it: Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, in the British colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania). A forbidding environment, no humans lived there, though it was thought by many locals to be where they would be reborn, after death, as chimpanzees.
In July 1960, Goodall boarded a boat, far smaller than the Kenya Castle, and after a few hours motoring over the warm, deep waters of Lake Tanganyika, she stepped onto the pebbly beach at Gombe.
Last summer, almost exactly 54 years later, Jane Goodall was standing on the same beach. The vast lake was still warm, the beach beneath her clear plastic sandals still pebbly. But nearly everything else in sight was different. The jungle had reclaimed the clearing where she pitched her first tent. A ranger station and a small lodge stood nearby. Just out of sight, carved into the vegetation, were more cinder-block buildings that housed staff, researchers and their labs. Jutting into the lake was now a dock, where a boat was pulling up with a load of day-trippers from Kigoma, a small city to the south. All of this bustle was, of course, a result of the work Goodall began that day in 1960, which continues as one of the longest and most rigorously conducted inquiries into animal behavior.
For a good while in the beginning, Goodall had little human company. “Aloneness was a way of life,” she would write. Today, as a globe-trotting conservationist, Goodall can neither avoid nor refuse human contact. She radiates approachability; she typically dresses in khakis and an untucked oxford shirt. She can’t spend two minutes in a hotel lobby in Bujumbura or in an airplane seat waiting to depart for London without someone angling up to say how amazing she is. She can find relief from the crush of humanity only in hotel suites, in her childhood home of Bournemouth and here, on a remote shore of Lake Tanganyika, at the edge of a jungle few humans would set foot in had she not begun exploring it half a century ago.
An old friend and colleague of hers told me that Goodall, who turns 81 next month, regards Gombe as her “church” and her “refuge.” On this trip, though, a sense of sanctuary seemed out of reach — perhaps because she couldn’t resist the impulse to try to recruit new partners to her cause. I had accompanied her over Lake Tanganyika a couple of days earlier, and this morning we planned to take a walk in the woods and look for some chimps. But the trailhead of the path she wanted to take was blocked by a phalanx of tourists from the boat, and Goodall knew they would detain her if she tried to go that way.
Anthony Collins, a Scot who directs baboon research at Gombe and sometimes oversees its additional mission as an ecotourist destination, stood with us. He asked Goodall, “Where do you want to go?”
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SOURCE: N.Y. Times