Q&A with Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is one of Planet Earth’s most-beloved heroes. Here she answers our questions about travel, "voluntourism" and what day changed her life forever.


Jane Goodall’s tale began in the 1960s, when a young woman from Britain hopped aboard an ocean liner bound for Mombasa, Tanzania. She was all but 26 years old. Leaving London to visit a schoolmate in Nairobi, Jane Goodall clutched her secretarial papers to her chest and embarked on an adventure so grand and fairytale-like, it’s no wonder she has made it into the pages of National Geographic dozens of times.

Sure, it was the muscle behind palaeontologist Louis Leakey that catapulted Goodall onto the world stage, but her three most critical observations that made her legendary were documented long before she earned a Ph.D at Cambridge: chimps eat meat (they’d been presumed vegetarian); they use tools (in the form of plant stems to prod termite mounds); and they make tools that strip leaves from stems.

“Patience; that’s what it took—patience,” Goodall said when I caught up with her last October, where she spoke to a sold-out crowd of 2,000 at Calgary’s Jubilee Auditorium. “I had to wait a long time before Frodo or FiFi or David Greybeard [three of her longtime chimp chums] ever came up to me. The hours I spent sitting in trees or crouched down in grasses, waiting, learning… well, I couldn’t begin to count them.”

More than three decades later, Goodall continues to spread the word on her spring lecture tour in the Maritimes and Western Canada in the fall. Between those dates are annual trips to China, Japan, Europe and various African countries.

“Home” for Goodall is Bournemouth, England, where she shares the house she grew up in with her sister. She also keeps a small cabin on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, and a room at the Jane Goodall Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where student researchers and volunteers work.

You spend more than 300 days a year on the road. What keeps you operating at such a gruelling pace?

Without a question, these tours seem to make a difference. People get inspired. They come up to me and say, “I’m motivated to do more.”

Was there a specific day that your life changed forever?

Two, actually. On July 14, 1960, when I landed in Africa, and then on Nov. 7, 1986 [at a conference in Chicago with fellow chimp experts looking at graphic slides of a shrinking African habitat and the bush-meat trade].

As if that wasn’t enough, then someone reported the number of chimps had plummeted from more than two million in 1960 to severalhundred thousand [today’s figures suggest 300,000 spread over 21 countries]. I couldn’t stay in the Gombe forest any longer. I had to sound alarms. Everywhere.

Has your work ever terrified you?

Well, getting dragged around by Frodo, who was a real bully at least 10 times stronger than me, always got my heart racing. But the scariest incident happened in May 1975, when three young Americans and a Dutch woman were kidnapped by rebel soldiers who had crossed Lake Tanganyika from Zaire. The four hostages were eventually released, but for many years after, I could only go there with a military escort and we stopped all expat researchers and helpers from working there.

Today, when we think of “voluntourism,” we think of organizations who accept keen travellers or young researchers to work for very little, which is exactly what you did in the ’60s. Do you have any advice when it comes to joining a certain organization?

Like anything—do your homework. Some organizations are a scam. You have to start by examining the country you’re going to. If they can double the money by letting 24 people a day look at gorillas instead of 12… well, that’s when the whirl of economic returns begins. With us, only researchers are allowed to work with the chimps. But other volunteer opportunities in Africa include planting trees, working in schools, running art classes (that reuse trash) and working in the chimp sanctuaries—but not with the animals. The Jane Goodall Institue (janegoodall.org) runs a teacher’s workshop in Uganda in July, and we’re currently looking for volunteers.

As for favourite museums or restaurants, you must have a few?

The glamour of travel wore off a long time ago. I go from hotel to lecture theatre to schools to various groups. I don’t care one little bit about restaurants. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1970 and often get by on cups of tea and little snacks. It’s the people that matter to me and I have made some dear, dear friends over the years whom I try to see when I’m in their city. If I can go for a long walk in a park or visit a farm—well, that’s an extraordinary day for me.

Get Involved

Inspired by Goodall’s uncompromising spirit? The Roots & Shoots program is aimed at youth from preschool to university ages, with members in 120 countries. The program encourages youth (there are more than 400 groups in Canada, alone) to get involved in conservation and to carry out projects in their communities that help people, animals and the environment.

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