There Is Still Hope to Save the Planet, Jane Goodall Says

By IAN FEIN

Jane Goodall has seen a lot of sad things in the world.

But she still finds reasons for hope, and she shared that message with a packed Vineyard audience at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs on Thursday evening.

"I have three grandchildren, and my sister has two. And when I look at them and think about how much ill we've done to this planet since we were their age, I feel guilt and anger," Ms. Goodall said.

"But if we can just get through this terrible apathy that falls upon people because they feel so helpless in the face of all the huge problems in the world, and get them to understand that what little bit they can do will have a great effect if carried out by millions of other people, then there's hope in future," she said.

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The Tabernacle event was a shared fund-raiser for the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and the Jane Goodall Institute.

Perhaps no other person in the last 50 years has had such an impact on our appreciation of the world around us. Her pioneering research with wild chimpanzees almost a half-century ago forever changed our understanding of human and animal behavior.

Ms. Goodall retold her life story on Thursday, tracing how an unassuming British girl grew up to become an international environmental icon. She said that she knew at a very early age that she wanted to move to Africa, live with the animals and write books about them. So she saved up money, quit her job in London and headed to Africa in her mid-20s - which was practically unheard of for a female at the time.

The breakthrough in her research came when she witnessed chimpanzees using grass as a tool to eat fleas.

"Back then, people thought humans and only humans used and made tools - it's what defined man," Ms. Goodall explained. "But after what I saw, you'd either have to redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as humans."

Ms. Goodall discovered these similarities between humans and chimpanzees years before genetics research confirmed a closeness in our DNA codes. She was also the first to document that chimpanzees, like humans, have different personalities - with some being nice, some nasty, some courageous and some generous.

"People always ask me if I prefer humans or chimps," she said. "And I say I like some humans better than some chimps, and like some chimps better than some humans."

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As one of the first people to talk about personalities in animal behavior, Ms. Goodall ran into difficulty at Cambridge University, where she was studying for her Ph.D. Such talk was considered inappropriate at the time, and she was criticized by professors for naming different chimpanzees, instead of using numbers.

But even though she was not supposed to talk about personalities or emotions, Ms. Goodall learned a trick: "Instead of saying that Fifi was very jealous, I would say, ‘The chimp acted in such a way that, had she been a human, we would have said she was jealous.'"

The different personalities ran the gamut, however, and Ms. Goodall said she witnessed interspecies violence in chimpanzees, particularly between neighborhood social groups.

"Chimps, like us, can have a dark side to their nature," she said. "It sounds really familiar - horrifyingly familiar - doesn't it?"

The human population is also now killing off the chimpanzees, Ms. Goodall noted, saying that the world chimp population went from roughly two million a century ago to about a million in 1960, and is now down to no more than 200,000.

She said logging roads have allowed access to hunters, who are picking off all types of animals for lucrative bush meat, which they sell around the world. But the chimpanzees are also disappearing because of habitat destruction, caused by rapid human population growth around the forest edge.

Ms. Goodall said the situation posed a difficult conundrum, because many were refugees fleeing from violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The question that came into my mind was: How can we even think of saving chimpanzees, when people here are clearly struggling to survive?" she said. "I realized we can't just save chimps, we have to thing in much bigger terms. You can't fix just a tiny piece of the puzzle and expect it all to come together."

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As an answer, Ms. Goodall embraced the concept of community-based conservation and started a program called Roots and Shoots, which tries to improve the lives of local people and teach them to appreciate and responsibly use the natural world around them.

In the 14 years since its founding, the Roots and Shoots program, which inspires young people to enact projects within their own communities, has become an international success.

"It has turned people around. You can see their lives have improved," she said. "They love the program, and they are now a part of us. They're helping us conserve the land. They understand."

The program now has about 8,000 groups in almost 100 countries, including two on the Vineyard, the members of which met with Ms. Goodall and a few Island educators at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary on Friday morning.

"This gives me hope because everywhere I go I meet young people who can show me what they have done to make world a better place," Ms. Goodall said.

She also explained the symbolism and significance of the program's name.

"Roots make a firm foundation. And shoots seem tiny, but to reach sun can break through brick wall," she said. "If we think of all our problems as a brick wall, then hundreds of thousands of young people across world can break through and make this a better world."