World Champion

Long acclaimed for her work with primates Goodall turns to the humans who must save them.

April 11, 2002|By Valerie Feldner | Valerie Feldner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Her job description might be "trying to save the world." She spends almost 300 days of the year on the road lobbying, lecturing, fund-raising, educating and overseeing conservation projects, and is remarkably chipper, considering the state of the planet.

At 68, Jane Goodall still looks like the ponytailed young woman who, 39 years ago, came into our living rooms in a National Geographic documentary about her groundbreaking study of a chimpanzee troupe in Gombe National Park in what is now called Tanzania. This weekend, in a new documentary, she returns there to update us on the chimps she's come to love and defend.

Since her introduction all those years ago, Goodall's fame has spread to all corners of the Earth. But within moments of meeting a stranger, she's chatting away like a long-lost buddy. Her appearance is also casual: In the bush, she could be a Gap model with her khaki outfits; back in civilization, she still prefers pants to dresses. Wherever she is, Goodall is that rare being, someone completely at home in the world, whether meeting with presidents or preschoolers - and always with one message: We must take care of what has been entrusted to us, or risk a "black mark against humanity."

It's the same message she'll be delivering Sunday night at 8 on MSNBC, in the new documentary, Jane Goodall: Chimps in Crisis. And one she will echo tonight in an appearance at Constitution Hall in Washington.

For her work as activist and conservationist, she can look back on decades of achievement and awards, such as the one she recently received from the United Nations, the Gandhi/King Peace Award For Non-Violence, and the Commander of the British Empire given to her by Queen Elizabeth II, and the Medal of Tanzania (the only non-Tanzanian ever to receive it). She's recently been called upon by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to help plan September's World Summit on Sustainable Development and will be featured in a new large-format film, Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees, which debuts in October.

But for all her accomplishments, Goodall's most remarkable traits may not be her piercing intellect or steely stamina, but rather her immediacy and sheer delight in the company of two- and four-legged animals. (Surprisingly, she confesses that of all animals, "My all-time favorite has to be dogs.")

She received her Ph.D. from Cambridge University and was only 23 when she became the protegee of famed anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey. Later, he hand-picked Goodall to study chimps in the wild because he saw something in the intense young woman.

In 1960, Goodall recorded a discovery that soon would catch the world's attention. She observed chimps carefully making tools to fish termites out of nests, proving that man was not the only primate capable of tool-making. She points out that chimps in different parts of Africa use different techniques and pass them on to their kin, which she says is what defines cultures. Her study of these primates, now conducted by others, continues to this day and is the longest of its kind.

Yet Goodall suddenly gave up her fascinating life among wild chimps in October 1986 after attending a conference in Africa.

Conserving wildlife

"It was an absolutely Damascus moment, as I call it," Goodall says of the life-altering experience. "We had a session on conservation, and it was just shocking. I went into that meeting as a scientist ready to do a second volume, and I came out knowing that was for others and that I had to do my bit to try and change attitudes and save [chimps] where I could. In other words, a payback time."

It couldn't have been an easy decision for a woman who is on a first-name basis with many chimps, including some in captive intelligence studies.

As she puts it, "They can blow your mind away. I know a chimp in Japan, I know her very well, and she can work on a computer; she uses a touch pad." Apparently Ai, the chimp, can work on two screens simultaneously, look at spots randomly distributed on a screen, count the dots and enter the sum much more quickly than any human. Goodall revels in the thought of this: "We can do it if we have clusters of five and four, that's easy. But she can [do] it when they're all over the place, and it takes you ages to count them up!" It's no wonder she envies such clear thinking. Goodall says she often wakes up and can't even recall what city she's in.

"When people say, `Where do you go next?' I say, `Where the ticket tells me.'" Like the wild chimps she's studied, which build new nests each evening, Goodall rarely spends more than one night in the same city. She spends a lot of time going from engagement to engagement.

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