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Interview: Jane Goodall embraces a broader mission

The noted primatologist has found that in order to save her beloved chimpanzees, she has to educate the people first.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2008

Tom Peter

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Though Jane Goodall first attained international fame in the 1960s for her work with the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, today she spends more time promoting environmental causes than she does in the jungle.

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She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to help people make a positive difference for all living things. Concerned that youths were feeling overwhelmed by environmental challenges, she created Roots and Shoots in 1991, an environmental group for youths that now is active in almost 100 countries.

Reaching beyond the animal kingdom, she has assisted local communities in Africa with a program called TACARE, which works to empower locals to improve their lives through microcredit projects and education initiatives. Most recently, she forged a partnership with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to protect chimpanzees in Gombe and support the local human community by producing ecofriendly coffee.

Dr. Goodall's work with humans, animals, and the environment prompted the United Nations to name her a Messenger of Peace in 2002.

A Monitor reporter caught up with her on her recent visit to the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan. Here are some excerpts:

How did you make the shift from studying a small group of chimpanzees to becoming a global environmental activist?

[In 1986,] for the very first time, we brought together people from different [chimpanzee] study sites in Africa.… It was fantastic what we learned, but we also had a session on conservation. And it was so shocking to see that right across Africa were the same kind of problems I was seeing at Gombe National Park with the deforestation, the growing human populations and bush-meat trade, which is the commercial hunting of wild animals for food, the live-animal trade, shooting mothers to take babies. The chimpanzee population, which was somewhere between 1 million and 2 million a hundred years ago, definitely more than a million when I began in '60, and then in '86 the maximum would have been 350,000. Today, 220,000 is the closest estimate.

I realized that although I went to the conference as a scientist planning to carry on this wonderful life I was living – learning about the chimpanzees, being out in the forest, analyzing the data, doing some teaching, writing books, I mean, you know, idyllic – but I left as an activist, knowing I had to do what I could to help the chimpanzees, to try and do what I could to protect rain forests and raise awareness. First just in Africa, but then I realized that so many of Africa's problems could be related to the unsustainable lifestyles we have in the affluent societies, particularly in the developed world in the West. And so I realized I had to start taking this message of awareness to Europe, to North America, and increasingly to Asia.