Interview: Jane Goodall on the Future of Plants and Chimps

The renowned chimp expert discusses her new book, her efforts to protect the rainforest and why she misses living with chimps

Jane Goodall
Natalie Behring

Over the course of 45 years studying the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, Jane Goodall revolutionized our understanding of our closest primate relatives. A champion of animal conservation and the author of 26 books, she turns her attention for the first time to plants with Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, to be published April 2 and excerpted in the March issue of Smithsonian.

As one of the world’s most renowned animal researchers, what made you decide to write a book about plants?

For my last book about saving endangered animals from extinction, I wrote a long section about plants, but my publisher said the book was way too long, so apart from one or two examples, the plants got left out. I was particularly upset because the botanists and horticulturalists had been so cooperative and excited that their stuff was going to get into my book, and I thought it’d be really mean to leave it out. So my first idea was just to add a bit to that section and put it out as a slim volume. But the plants seemed to think otherwise. It was almost as though they put their roots into my brain saying, “Look, Jane, you’ve spent all your life talking about animals, and now it’s our turn.”

So it morphed. It started simple, just about rescuing endangered plants from extinction, but then that needed some kind of introduction to answer this question you ask. And then I’ve always loved trees and forests, so they decided that they wanted a prominent place, and so one thing led to another.

Do you have any particular memories from your life in which you felt close to plants?

The tree I had in the garden as a child, my beech tree, I used to climb up there and spend hours. I took my homework up there, my books, I went up there if I was sad, and it just felt very good to be up there among the green leaves and the birds and the sky. All around our home in Bournemouth, [England], there were wild cliffs with trees, and pines, and I just came to really love trees. Of course, reading books about Tarzan, I fell in love with the jungle—as we called it then—and that was part of my dream of wanting to go to Africa, to be out in the forest.

Ecologically, when people think about endangered species, they mostly consider animals. Why should we be concerned about plants?

For one thing, without plants, we wouldn’t exist—everything eats plants, or it eats animals that live on plants. So for the entire ecosystem, plants are the underpinning. If you start to restore an area, you start with the plants, and then the insects appear, and then the birds follow, and mammals come along. Also, plants are fantastic at removing impurities from the soil. And the forests play this incredibly important role in sequestering carbon dioxide.

But it’s also more than that. It’s been proven by quite a few studies that plants are good for our psychological development. If you green an area, the rate of crime goes down. Torture victims begin to recover when they spend time outside in a garden with flowers. So we need them, in some deep psychological sense, which I don’t suppose anybody really understands yet.

You’re most well known for your work with chimps. Should we be just as concerned about their future? How endangered are they right now, compared to when you first started working with them?

Back then, we said there were somewhere between one and two million wild chimps. Now, there are 300,000, maximum. They’re spread over 21 countries, and many of them—like the Gombe chimps—are in small fragmented remnant populations, which in the long term won’t survive.

What are some solutions?

First of all, there are different ways to address different threats. One threat, which is what the Gombe chimps face, is habitat destruction and human population growth. What we’ve introduced recently is a high-resolution mapping GIS system, so [locals] can sit down with these high-resolution maps and actually see where their village boundaries are, and work out which land they want to put under conservation

The other big threat is the use of bush meat, so that’s where education is important. In Uganda, because the chimps and people are living very closely together, we have an intensified effort to help the people and chimps find ways of living together, with buffer zones between the forest and people. But you also need to provide alternate ways of living, for hunters. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, stop hunting,’ because all their revenue is cut off.

Finally, tourism is a two-edged sword. Somehow, you have to bring money in, particularly as far as the governments are concerned—because why wouldn’t they want to make a fortune by selling off a forest concession to a logging company? So we have to try to find other ways to make money [to avoid logging.]

Do you still spend any times with chimps in the field?

Not really. I get back to Gombe twice a year, and sometimes I see the chimps, and sometimes I don’t—I’m not there for very long. I’m not as fit as I used to be, so if they’re way up at the top of the mountain, it’s tough. 

Do you miss being out in the field with them?

I do. A lot of it is just being out in the forest. But Gombe is very different for me, now. There are more tourists, wider trails, so it’s hard to be with chimps on your own. We don’t manage the tourism, so although there are rules about how many tourists can be with the chimps, the rules get interpreted in such a way that you can have three groups of six tourists all clustered around one chimp and her offspring. It’s very disturbing to me. But the chimps don’t seem to care that much. 

How does chimp behavior help us better understand human behavior?

Well, the part that always shocked me was the inter-community violence among the chimps: the patrols and the vicious attacks on strangers that lead to death. It’s an unfortunate parallel to human behavior—they have a dark side just as we do. We have less excuse, because we can deliberate, so I believe only we are capable of true calculated evil. 

What’s better about spending time with chimps rather than humans?

On the day-long follows that I used to do with mothers and their offspring—these chimp families that I knew so well—there was hardly a day when I didn’t learn something new about them. Little things, when you watch very closely, and try to understand how their experiences in early life affect subsequent behavior—seeing them change over the years.

One anecdote that I love was with Fifi, a mother that I loved so much. At the time she had two offspring: Freud, who was 6, and his little brother who was 1. Fifi was hanging around by a termite heap, resting, and Freud was bored, and an elderly male baboon came and sat down. Freud began sitting over his head, and kicking it with his feet. After a bit, this old male got irritated and stood up on his legs, and grabbed at Freud and roared at him. Freud screamed, and Fifi raced over and hit the baboon. It all calmed down again, and then Freud did the exact same thing, and the baboon punished him a little more, and Fifi raced over and protected him again. Then, it happened a third time, but this time, Fifi ran over and punished Freud! Those little things are insights into how their minds work, and what it’s like to be a chimp.

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