Skip to main content

After 55 years of studying chimpanzees in the forests of Tanzania and the seminal insights that her work offers on the origins of human nature, Jane Goodall is still left with an unfathomable question: "We are the most intellectual creature that's ever walked on the planet. So how come we're destroying our only home?"

Dr. Goodall offers this question while sitting in an elegant hotel suite in Toronto – her own "home from home," whenever she is in the city, which is about twice per year. The use of the suite is a gift from the hotel's managing director, a long-time supporter. Otherwise, Dr. Goodall says, she would opt for something far more frugal.

Two bottles of single malt scotch – Dr. Goodall's preferred beverage – are on hand. It's only 10 a.m, but if Dr. Goodall manages to find a moment anywhere in her day to relax, she may treat herself to a wee dram.

Brightcove player

Video: Jane Goodall on why retirement isn’t factoring in to her future plans

These days Dr. Goodall, who turned 81 earlier this month, has effectively exchanged the day-to-day rigour of field biology for a gruelling travel schedule that keeps her on the road about 300 days a year. Her aim is global conservation, or “making the world a better place for all living things” – the stated mission of her eponymous Jane Goodall Institute. The non-profit institute has 29 offices worldwide, but Canada’s is second largest after the U.S., which makes this an important stop on the fund-raising and awareness-raising circuit.

There’s no denying Dr. Goodall’s stamina or her stature as one of the world’s most recognizable scientific personalities. Her enduring media presence is unequaled in the environmental movement.

Asked whether scientists have a moral obligation to advocate for the environment, Dr. Goodall pauses and says, “Well, in a way, yes. It’s just that some scientists wouldn’t make a very good job of advocating.”

She then adds, “I never think of myself primarily as a scientist.”

Dr. Goodall famously came to Africa in 1960 with no university degree and took up chimp studies at the suggestion of anthropologist Louis Leakey. A Cambridge PhD came later, after her groundbreaking work showed unequivocally that chimpanzees are tool-makers and emotional beings with a complex and sometimes brutal social hierarchy.

Brightcove player

Video: Jane Goodall on what chimpanzees can tell us about us

Back then, in a era that was closer in time to the Scopes Monkey Trial than to the present, the message came as something of a shock. Unassuming but unflappable, the young Dr. Goodall was the ideal messenger for a post-Darwinian television age.

Long associated with chimpanzee welfare, she has more recently taken aim at practises such factory farming – Dr. Goodall is a vegetarian – and the introduction of genetically modified crops, which she calls “really scary.” The later issue has put her on what many experts regard as the unscientific side of the debate over GM foods. When pressed about whether such crops could have potential benefits if deployed responsibly, she hedges.

“I’m not that kind of scientist,” she says, “But if you read exactly how the plant is manipulated… you cannot predict what the side effects might be.”

Brightcove player

Video: Jane Goodall on Canada’s dodgy conservation record and why she’s a vegetarian

Dr. Goodall is also an advocate of carbon trading, like the scheme recently adopted by Ontario and Quebec, as a way to use markets to take the pressure of a climate system swelling with fossil fuel emissions.

Through her Roots and Shoots program, which promotes youth-led community action, she has supported the premise that the people who live near a wilderness region must become partners and realize a benefit in protecting it. It’s an approach she came to in the 1990s when a plane trip over Tanzania revealed to her the extent of chimp habitat lost to deforestation, and the consequent suffering for people as the over-farmed landscape was stripped bare and fertile ground washed away.

“We can’t even try to save the chimpanzees if people are living like this,” she realized.

Groups that seek funding from Roots and Shoots must propose projects that take into account impacts on people, animals and the environment, to emphasize the connection between all three. It’s a formula she says has worked well, but she acknowledges that the wilderness of the past is probably never coming back.

As to the future: “It can’t be quite the way it is now even… but I do think we can save large areas of wilderness,” she says. “My job is to give people hope.”

A camera shutter is clicking as we speak. Dr. Goodall smiles for the photographer but says it is her least favourite part of the job. As someone who made her reputation studying other creatures, she would rather not be the object of the camera lens.

Asked what she would most want to learn from further research on chimpanzees, Dr. Goodall’s response is loaded with equal doses of wistfulness and wonder.

“The thing I really want to learn is impossible to learn. I would like to be able to look out at the world with the mind of chimpanzee. And that would teach me more in five minutes than another 20 years of research.”