Jane Goodall will be celebrating her 80th birthday on April 3, and the world should recognize and reflect on the work she has done for not only the great apes but also for all wildlife. The British primatologist and conservationist had made many breakthroughs and discoveries about chimpanzees that challenged existing beliefs among the scientific communities in the early 1960s. Goodall is famous for her life-long study of chimpanzee behavior in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania as well as for the founding of the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots program.
Before she got involved with chimpanzees or even stepped foot upon Africa, Goodall worked as a secretary in Oxford University in the mid-1950s since her mother could not afford to sent her to get a college education. A few years later in 1956, Goodall was invited to go visit a friend’s farm in Kenya. So she quit her job and moved back to her hometown of Bournemouth, picking up a job as a waitress to earn enough money to buy a two-way ticket to Africa and back. In three weeks, she traveled by ship from London to Mombasa, Kenya, where she eventually met Louis Leakey, who was a famous anthropologist and paleontologist. He was also a curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi and hired Goodall as his assistant and secretary. Goodall and another student helped Leaky and his wife, Mary, in his digs of human fossils in the Olduvai Gorge.
For the 23-year-old Jane Goodall, luck was on her side. Leakey was looking for someone to go to Tanzania to study chimpanzees because he believed that a long-term study of higher primate behavior would glean clues to human and ape evolution. At that time, very little is known about wild chimps, and past studies had proved unsuccessful because past expedition teams were too large and frightened the chimps or the scientists lacked the patience to study the chimps in the field. Leakey had a hunch on Goodall that she may be able to do what no other scientists could do. So he sent her to Gombe Stream National Park to study the chimps. Many scientists vented their disagreement with Leakey’s choice because she lacked a basic college degree or field experience. Leakey paid no attention. He believed that Goodall’s fascination with wildlife, patience, and uncluttered mind from conventional scientific methods at the time fit the job perfectly.
Within weeks of observation and recording her findings, Goodall discovered that chimps had social behaviors that were akin to humans, such as vocal language, social hierarchy, and grooming. The best-known discovery was that chimps can make and use tools to obtain food, such as catching termites by poking a customized stick into a termite nest or rotten log. This debunked the then-current notion that humans were the only animals that can make tools. Scientists at the time also thought that chimps were vegetarians. Goodall proved that it wasn’t so when she observed and documented chimpanzees occasionally hunted (in packs) and ate small mammals — including monkeys.
Her research and field work throughout the 1960s and 1970s made her into a science celebrity among the media and scientific community. Her first major book, In the Shadow of Man, was published in 1971. It described chimpanzee behavior based on her field study, bridging scientific research and science fiction. Goodall worked with African governments and private businesses to establish conservations and profitable tourism programs that can help protect wild chimps (and other wildlife) and their environment.
Since 1975, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute in many countries, including Tanzania, Republic on Congo, United Kingdom, United States, China, South Africa, and Canada. In the years after her research, she had spoken out against using chimps for medical studies due to ethical problems and animal abuse issues. She had received numerous awards and honorable recognitions from the various organizations, such as the National Geographic Society (1988) and the San Diego Zoological Society (1974), and was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations (2002). In 2003, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles invested Goodall as a Dame of the British Empire for “services to the Environment and Conservation.”
With over 50 years of work that changed the course of science and wildlife conservation, Jane Goodall is still not considering to retire when she turns 80 on April 3. For the world-renowned chimpanzee expert who had already dedicated her life on behalf of one of humans’ closest relatives, her birthday could be just another day for her among the chimps.
By Nick Ng