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Jane Goodall relaxes with her travelling companion, Mr. H, in her hotel room in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Jane Goodall relaxes with her travelling companion, Mr. H, in her hotel room in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Youth give Jane Goodall reason to hope Add to ...

Deforestation. Desertification. Shrinking freshwater supplies. Acidification of the oceans. Loss of biodiversity. Overpopulation. Climate change. Choking pollution.

Jane Goodall, the famed primatologist, methodically rhymes off the major environmental challenges in the world as the audience at Loyola High School sits in rapt attention.

Then she pauses and lowers her voice almost to a whisper: “We seem to be bent on destroying this beautiful planet. It’s sad.”

Yet, in her hour-long address, the word Dr. Goodall used most often was “hope.”

“Oh, yes, I’m hopeful,” she said in an interview. “I know all the bad things. I do my research and I’m not naive.

“But I also meet so many incredible people, especially young people, and I know things are going to change.”

While her passion for the fate of chimpanzees and other great apes remains undiminished, the project of which Dr. Goodall is most proud is Roots and Shoots. The group began in 1991 when she met a dozen Tanzanian students concerned with the environment and it has now grown to have more than 8,000 chapters in 136 countries, tackling environmental issues at a local level.

“That’s my greatest reason for hope: The desire of young people to live in peace and harmony with each other and with Mother Nature,” Dr. Goodall said.

At age almost-80 (her birthday is Thursday and will be marked with a giant fundraising bash in San Francisco), “Dr. Jane” remains indefatigable and driven.

She has gone from a solitary life studying chimpanzees in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania to world-renowned anthropologist to passionate environmentalist travelling the world 300-days-a-year pleading on behalf of Mother Nature.

The transition, she said, was not a conscious choice but a natural evolution.

“I realized that if we didn’t help the people, we couldn’t help the chimpanzees.”

Dr. Goodall’s epiphany came when she was flying over Gombe National Park – home to the chimpanzees in her famed research – and saw that it was a tiny swatch of green surrounded by deforestation and misery.

So, in the early 1990s, with local collaborators, she launched the TACARE (Tanganyika Catchment, Reforestation and Education) project to help villagers find more sustainable means of food production and economic sustainability by using microcredit and promoting education, and engaging them in reforestation.

Since then, the forest chimpanzees call home has tripled in size and the health and economic prospects of more than 50 villages around the Gombe have improved markedly. The approach is also been replicated around Africa.

“The chimpanzees are doing well. They’re holding their own,” Dr. Goodall said. But the progeny of her original research subjects are a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dismal picture.

“Over all, great apes are doing very, very poorly,” she said. “Mining and forestry and disease are encroaching on their territory and, of course, they are still hunted for bush meat.”

Aside from chimpanzees and great apes in the wild, Dr. Goodall continues to lobby to improve the condition of those who are orphaned, in captivity, and used as research subjects.

Dr. Goodall agreed to a lavish 80th birthday – “I really don’t understand the fuss” – only on the condition that the proceeds go to supporting the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, on islands in the Kouilou River in the Republic of Congo, where more than 160 orphaned chimpanzees have been released. The video of Dr. Goodall releasing a chimp called Wounda is remarkable )

While in Montreal she visited The Fauna Foundation , Canada’s only chimpanzee sanctuary. Dr. Goodall noted that one of the most important victories in recent years is that the U.S. National Institutes of Health has agreed to release more than 400 chimpanzees to sanctuaries.

In fact, her philosophy, when it comes to rescuing chimpanzees through to tackling climate change, is that little gestures count.

“People feel hopeless. They think that they don’t matter. But if a critical mass of us make little changes, we will change the direction of the planet,” Dr.Goodall said.

“There is hope.”

Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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