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EXCLUSIVE: Dr Jane Goodall shares her message of hope

“I was put on this world with a mission, so I just have to carry on.”

Dying will be an awfully big adventure for pioneering primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, who celebrated her 90th birthday in April. “I’m absolutely sure, myself, that death isn’t the end, but heaven knows what happens afterwards,” she says, making a distinction between her own belief and science. “There’s either nothing, or there’s something. Can you think of a greater adventure than finding out what that is?” 

Not that the woman who forever changed our understanding of chimps is slowing down or getting morbid. On the contrary, Jane is currently circling the globe on a non-stop speaking jaunt that would exhaust most ordinary mortals half her age. 

In 2024 alone her inspiring Reasons for Hope tour will visit more than 25 countries, in which she touched down in Australia in May and June. On average this revered scientist and environmental activist spends around 300 days on the road every year, crusading to save our planet – and its endangered wildlife – before it is too late. 

“I guess I was put on this world with a mission, so I just have to carry on,” she says, brisk as a sea breeze in coastal Bournemouth, the British resort town she still calls home, although she’s seldom there. “But this year is the worst ever. Because it’s my 90th everyone wants a bit of me.” 

Dr Jane Goodall

Wish her a happy birthday and the thanks are a little glum. Dr Jane Goodall may be a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a United Nations Messenger of Peace, but today she’s a tad over all the fuss. 

“It’s not happy at all really, because it’s non-stop,” she opines. “Everybody wants to celebrate my birthday with galas and all sorts of events and things where I have to put smart clothes on. You know, I just don’t like those things. I’ve already had 14 cakes I think. 

“I was in New York on my birthday itself and it was terrible. It started with a talk show, then a long interview, then a long lunch, then another interview, then a gala fundraising thing in the evening. That’s a fairly typical day. 

“No wonder my voice is giving out,” she coughs, recovering from bronchitis. Even the indefatigable Jane is a little tired, glad of a short stay at her late grandmother’s Bournemouth house where she grew up, surrounded by free-range pets

Perhaps a tot of whisky would help? “Yes, you’re totally right and I’m reaching towards it … hang on a second while I get the bottle.” She chuckles, pouring herself a “medicinal” drink. “That will do the trick! I should have had it ready, but I didn’t. Now I should be okay.” 

The way Jane sees it she has no option other than to work too hard. Time is running out. Chimps are endangered. Her message has ever more urgency as global warming takes hold, threatening life itself. 

Dr Jane Goodall with a chimpanzee

“We’re going through dark times socially, politically and environmentally,” she says. “We do have a window of time to change this planet’s course, but it’s rapidly closing. Humanity is at the mouth of a very long, dark tunnel and right at the end is a little star – that’s hope. 

“We’ve got to get together and roll up our sleeves to climb over and crawl under all the obstacles that lie in the path, like climate change and loss of biodiversity. And a very important one is poverty. We must alleviate poverty because really poor people destroy the environment to survive. 

“My job is to give people enough hope to keep fighting, to make them understand that each one of us makes an impact every single day. Without hope we get apathetic and give up. And if everyone loses hope we’re doomed.” 

Yet she still sees reason for optimism. The Jane Goodall Institute, founded in 1991 in an effort to protect her beloved chimps and their habitat, is active around the world and its Roots & Shoots youth program now has local chapters in more than 60 countries, including Australia. 

“Today’s young people – everywhere I go – they’re so excited and empowered,” she enthuses. “We’re listening to their voices and we support them to go and take action in their communities. That gives us a reason to hope.” 

In all this – and in so many other ways – Jane has been a trailblazer, particularly for women seeking careers in science, technology, engineering or maths. “It’s lovely because, when I was young, no women were scientists. Only very, very strange ones like Madame Curie, you know.” 

Dr Jane Goodall

From the beginning Dr Jane Goodall was equally drawn to animals and to Africa. Given a stuffed toy chimpanzee – which still travels everywhere with her – by her father, the tiny girl’s fate was sealed. As a toddler Jane took earthworms to bed with her and got lost in the family henhouse, aged four, trying to discover where eggs came from. 

The first book she remembers reading was The Story of Dr Dolittle, about a country GP who could talk to the animals. Another fictional childhood favourite, jungle hero Tarzan, upset her because “he married the wrong Jane!” 

When she eventually sailed for Africa in 1957, using money saved from waitressing, she wasn’t a scientist and had no qualifications other than an inquiring mind. She was simply a “naive” young woman chasing a dream on her first overseas trip

Luckily she met and impressed palaeontologist Dr Louis Leakey who, although married, fell in love with his beautiful protégée. Politely but firmly rebuffed, he nevertheless offered her the chance to go and study chimpanzees in the wild like nobody had before. 

“It was destiny,” smiles Jane, who became fascinated by the primates’ intricate social and family life at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. There she would make a remarkable discovery, totally upending the long-held wisdom that humans were the only creatures capable of making and using tools. 

Deep in the rainforest she observed a large male chimp, nicknamed David Greybeard, foraging for food. To her amazement she saw him strip and shape a stick – then deliberately use it to dig tasty insects from a termite mound. It was a seminal moment that redefined our understanding of the animal kingdom and its capabilities. 

Dr Jane Goodall with a chimpanzee

That’s why Jane, currently studying her fifth generation of chimps at Gombe, believes they are so important and must be saved. The mirror they hold up to our own species is both uncanny and invaluable. 

“They are our closest living relatives,” she says passionately. “They share 98.8 per cent of our DNA, so they behave like us in so many ways. They hold hands, embrace, kiss, develop long-term mother and child bonds and other friendships. 

“Like us, they have a dark, brutal side. Males compete for dominance and neighbouring communities wage primitive war against each other. But they also show love, compassion and true altruism. Even an adult male will adopt an infant who’s lost their mother.” 

Dr Jane Goodall went on to gain a PhD in ethology at Cambridge University, but was criticised “quite unpleasantly” by (mainly male) scientific peers for giving her chimp subjects names, not referring to them as numbers. “I was told I couldn’t have empathy for the animals. But they are sentient and clearly have feelings, as anyone who has ever had a pet dog knows. That’s where I parted from science, when it stopped joining the head and the heart.” 

Today she considers herself an activist more than a scientist, fighting for animal conservation and environmental causes. She persuaded a US oil company to help build a chimp sanctuary in the Republic of the Congo. She lobbied America’s National Institutes of Health to stop medical research on chimpanzees, which it did in 2015. 

And she also became a vegetarian – then later a vegan – after reading Animal Liberation by Aussie philosopher Peter Singer in the 1970s. “Until then I hadn’t known about factory farms and it made me sick to my stomach.” 

Dr Jane Goodall in New York

Jane is extremely close to her family. Her first marriage – to Dutch wildlife photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick – ended in divorce but produced her only child, Hugo “Grub” Eric Louis van Lawick, who builds houses in Africa and Latin America. All three of her adored grandchildren work alongside Jane on many projects. 

Sadly her happy second marriage – to Tanzanian national parks director Derek Bryceson – ended prematurely when he died of cancer, leaving her a widow at the age of 46. Devastated by the loss, she says, “I came to England to mourn then returned to Tanzania, spending days alone in the forest. Out in nature, grief dissipated. Now I love to think of life after death. Exploring that unknown will be my next great adventure.” 

Meanwhile Jane, and her sister Judy, have a tipple every evening wherever they are, in honour of their mother and other absent friends. 

“It’s a ritual,” she explains. “Mum and I used to have a small glass together at home. As I travelled more it became a way to feel connected at our respective 7pms. Now Judy and I toast her up in the clouds. Of course it’s for medicinal purposes. We have fun imagining Mum among beautiful angels and music … 

“The funny thing is that a lot of people all around the world heard about our tradition and wanted to raise a glass to the cloud contingent as well. They often ask if there’s room up there for their friends and relations as well. I always tell them, ‘Of course!’ It’s quite amusing but you find ways of coping, don’t you? I still hear my mother’s voice and she died more than 20 years ago.” 

Dr Jane Goodall as a child with her toy chimpanzee

One day, who knows, they may be reunited. Jane is excited to find out once she embarks on her final journey. Certainly the Goodall heritage will survive whatever the truth – or otherwise – of life after death. 

Dr Jane Goodall’s Dream, a spectacular, immersive experience celebrating her work, is set to open in Tanzania on World Chimpanzee Day, July 14, next year. “I can’t quite imagine it yet but it involves former Walt Disney Imagineers and African artisans and it’s going to be magic.” 

Less tangibly, she takes pride in a twofold legacy. 

“Starting Roots & Shoots, giving hope to millions of children, that’s one thing,” she ponders, summing up her long and storied achievements. “The second is thanks to the chimps, who have helped scientists understand that we’re part of, not separate from, the amazing animal kingdom.” 

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