Half a century has passed since I first set foot at Gombe in Tanzania on July 14, 1960, to begin studying the behaviour of chimpanzees. So much has happened since then. And we have learned, and are still learning, so many valuable lessons from these amazing creatures.
With the help of our increasingly sophisticated global media, and our extraordinary human ability to communicate ideas, millions of people have shared my early experiences with the chimpanzees.
Through these experiences, they have gained a greater understanding of how like us chimpanzees are. The structure of their DNA differs from ours by only just over 1 per cent. And there are uncanny similarities in intellectual performance, emotional expression and many aspects of behaviour. Because of these similarities, chimpanzees are marvellous ambassadors for the rest of the animal kingdom.
The research I began in 1960 has become one of the longest-running studies of a group of wild animals in the world. The offspring of the chimps I knew in the 1960s are still being observed by a team of Tanzanian field staff and students from around the world. Where once I had my notebook, my binoculars and my patience, there are now databases, satellite imagery and android cellphones, all of which enhance our research and conservation efforts.
Early on, the Gombe chimpanzees forced us to redefine what it means to be human. When I observed them not only using but making tools - up to that moment considered to be a uniquely human ability - I was witnessing the beginnings of the breakdown of the myth of human difference. My observations of tool-making marked the first blurring of the line, once considered so sharp, between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.
The new generation of young researchers is uncovering new information that continues to shed light on subjects such as aging, family relations, cultural traditions, violence and territoriality, human evolution and the origins of human diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.
But perhaps the most important lessons from Gombe relate to conservation. In the late 1980s, I attended a conference in the United States where I learned how rapidly chimpanzees and other wild animals were losing their forest habitat, right across Africa. A flight over Gombe confirmed that - where the tiny park had once been surrounded by forest, it was now an island of green in the midst of barren mountain slopes. More people were trying to live there than the land could support.
How could we even try to save the chimpanzees in the face of human suffering? In 1996, we began an experiment that has grown into one of the most promising solutions to such conservation problems. A team of Tanzanians talked with the villagers about their needs. Gradually, the people came to realize that efforts to conserve the environment were essential for their own well-being.
Our program, TACARE, promotes reforestation, better agricultural methods, primary health care and education. It helps alleviate poverty and promotes sustainable living. It includes microcredit opportunities for launching small businesses. It provides information on family planning and HIV/AIDS education and seeks to help communities develop solutions to their own problems.
One result of this community-centred conservation effort is that trees now cover the once-bare hillsides around the park. We are replicating the model in other parts of Africa where human population growth threatens wilderness areas.
But despite such successes, wild chimpanzees and so many other species remain in danger of extinction. Many have already gone. There are dire problems caused by increasing human populations, poverty and unsustainable lifestyles. Diminishing natural resources, including fresh water, increase civil unrest. At stake is the very future of Earth and the species that call it home, including the human species.
We must not lose hope, however. We must take heart from the lessons learned from Gombe. Nature is extraordinarily resilient and has extraordinary power to heal itself. And human beings, using our amazing intellects, are coming up with myriad solutions to the problems we have created. Then there is the indomitable human spirit - we shall never give up. And finally, the energy, determination and passion of our young people, the leaders of tomorrow. We must listen to them.
Together, I am convinced we shall succeed in creating a new respect for our living planet, bringing renewed hope for future generations.
Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, is a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
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