‘It hurts that, despite being the most intellectual creature that has ever walked – the explosive development of our intellect is the main difference between us and the chimps – we are destroying the planet.’

Jane Goodall (Photograph: Kieran E Scott)

Jane Goodall (Photograph: Kieran E Scott)

Jane Goodall DBE was born in London, England. She is a primatologist, conservationist, author and environmental activist, and holds a PhD in ethology from Cambridge University. In 1960, Goodall began living with and studying chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. She is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation, and of Roots & Shoots, a global environmental and humanitarian education programme for young people. She became a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2002 and was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004.

Q. What really matters to you?

The future of our planet. It matters terribly to me that people are making decisions based on questions like, ‘How will this help me at the next shareholders’ meeting?’ Or, ‘How will this help my next political campaign?’ People should be asking – as Indigenous People used to – ‘How will this decision benefit future generations?’

When I was ten years old, I read Tarzan of the Apes and fell in love with Tarzan. I decided that I would go to Africa when I grew up, to live with wild animals and write books about them. Everybody laughed at me! We didn’t have any money and World War Two was raging, but my mother had always imbued me with the message that, if you really want something, you have to work hard, take advantage of opportunity and never give up.

It took a while for me to achieve my dream, because there was no money for university; there was just enough money for a secretarial course. I found it really boring, but I got a job in a London company that made documentary films. Then, the opportunity came; a school friend invited me to Kenya, where her parents had bought a farm. I worked as a waitress to raise money for the fare – it was jolly hard work! Finally, I was off to Africa by boat. There, I met Louis Leakey; somebody had said that, if you are interested in animals, you should meet him, so I went to see him at the Natural History Museum. As chance would have it, his secretary had just left – so, that boring old secretarial training was what enabled me to follow my dream, in some ways.

I found myself among people who could talk about everything I was interested in: the animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants of Africa. And Leakey saw something in me. He offered me an opportunity to live with and learn from, not any old animal, but the one most like us – the chimpanzee. It was still a year before he could get money for this young, untrained girl who had never been to college; what a crazy idea! Nonetheless, a wealthy American businessman gave us money for six months’ work. However, the authorities of what was then part of the crumbling British Empire wouldn’t give permission for a young girl to go into the forest on her own, so, for the first four months, my amazing mother volunteered to come with me. After I observed tool use and tool making – then thought to be only human attributes – Leakey was able to get money from National Geographic for me to carry on with the study. They sent a photographer and filmmaker, Hugo van Lawick, whose early films and photographs took the story of ‘Jane and the chimps’ around the world, and who also became my first husband.

Finally, Louis Leakey wrote to tell me that I had to get a degree, but that I would have to raise my own money. And there was no time to mess about with a bachelor of arts, so he got me a place doing a PhD in ethology at Cambridge University. Never having been to college, I was extremely nervous and the professor told me I’d done my whole study wrong. He said that I should have given the chimpanzees numbers, not names, and that I couldn’t talk about their personalities, minds or emotions, because only humans had those attributes. Back then, it was thought that the difference between humans and all the other animals was a difference of kind, but, in fact, it is a difference of degree, because chimps are so biologically like us. Finally, I was able to win through and today’s science has largely changed its mind.

In 1986, there was a conference in Chicago that brought scientists together from around the world to discuss chimpanzees. Everywhere it was the same: chimp numbers dropping, forests disappearing, the beginnings of the bushmeat trade and the shooting of mothers to steal their babies for sale, entertainment and medical research. I went to that conference as a scientist and left as an activist. Just like that! I didn’t make a decision; it just happened to me.

So, from 1986 until now, I haven’t been in one place for more than three consecutive weeks. I realised that people were losing hope, which was not surprising considering how we were harming the planet. And I realised that, if young people were losing hope, we might as well all give up. So, that began JGI, the Jane Goodall Institute, which had been started by then in 1977, so we began the Roots & Shoots programme to improve the lives of the people and gradually got their trust. I got together a bit of money and went to Africa to learn more about the plight of the chimps. That is when I realised that the people were suffering, too. There were more people around Gombe than the land could support; people were too poor to buy food from elsewhere, farmland was overused and infertile, and trees were being cut down from steep slopes. It was clear to me then, that, if we didn’t improve human lives, there was no way we could try and save the chimps.

There is so much left to do. People ask, ‘Why aren’t you slowing down? You’re eighty-three!’ Well, there is so much awareness to raise. I was given certain gifts and one gift was communication; I have to use that gift while I still can.

Q. What brings you happiness?

I love the planet, I love nature and I love being out in the rainforest.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

What we’re doing to the planet. It hurts that, despite being the most intellectual creature that has ever walked – the explosive development of our intellect is the main difference between us and the chimps – we are destroying the planet.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would get our Roots & Shoots programme for youth into every school around the world, starting as young as possible. The main message of Roots & Shoots is that every one of us makes a difference every single day and we get to choose what sort of difference we are going to make. But, until you know something, you don’t care about it and, if you don’t care about it, you won’t work to save it. On the one hand we have to reduce poverty, because, if you are really poor, you cut the trees down to try and grow food. On the other hand, we have to change our mindset; we have to measure success by something other than acquiring more money – acquiring more stuff.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with?

Hope. That there is time to turn things around. But this hope depends on us taking action – it will not be realised if we don’t get together to do something. It is really important to remember that every single individual matters and has some kind of role to play, and that we can choose what sort of impact we will make, every single day.

200 Women Who Will Change The Way You See The World, edited by Ruth Hobday, Geoff Blackwell, Marianne Lassandro and Sharon Gelman (Chronicle Books, 31 October 2017, £35.)