By David Greer
Like many aspiring conservationists, I was captivated as a youngster while watching videos of Jane Goodall’s early years in the forest interacting with the fascinating chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania. I was hooked. I was determined that I would end up working in Africa on their behalf–it was merely a question of time. I first met Jane in 1993 at a Jane Goodall Institute meeting in Florida. Uncharacteristically for me, I brazenly approached the legend and asked: “Dr. Jane, what was it like to know Flo?” For those who have followed Jane’s pioneering work at Gombe, they are familiar with the female chimpanzee Flo, the matriarch of the large, multi-generation ‘F-family’ of chimpanzees.
Jane described what a wonderful mother Flo was. She also mentioned her favorite chimpanzee, David Greybeard. He was the first chimpanzee to let Jane observe him – to give her a glimpse into their chimpanzee world. Jane also spoke of chimpanzees she wasn’t particularly fond of. I had naively anticipated that Jane would give a rather diplomatic description of the Gombe chimps instead of assigning varying levels of admiration, or disapproval, to individual chimpanzees.
After working with great apes in Africa for more than 20 years, I can indeed confirm that many fieldworkers have unique sentiments towards the individual animals they observe. On the border of Central African Republic and Republic of Congo, the gentle silverback named Kingo was the most forgiving western gorilla group leader I ever met. During the early stages of habituation–where the researcher attempts to gain a wild animal’s trust through repeated approaches — Kingo would rarely charge. He never attacked us. On the other hand, the long-since deceased Amahoro, a testy mountain gorilla silverback from Rwanda, would charge at us, screaming from over 150 feet away. Freud, the son of Flo, was a kind, regal alpha male chimpanzee leader who spent his time strategically building important bonds and earning respect among the community. Frodo, his younger brother and the largest male chimpanzee ever at Gombe, chose to pummel his adversaries, including many of us researchers, into submission — an unlikeable character, to say the least.
Treating study animals as individuals capable of expressing their own individual personalities isn’t lost on any dog or cat owner. But field researchers are traditionally trained to be mechanical. We aren’t supposed to let our feelings about an animal cloud our objective, scientific approach. Jane changed all of this. She was instrumental in shifting what was once unacceptable behavior in this regard: one doesn’t need to be a rigid, unfeeling observer to achieve credible scientific objectives.
Not long after my ’93 encounter with Jane, she offered me the opportunity to volunteer for one of her Roots and Shoots programs in Tanzania. I didn’t think twice about the offer. Soon I was off to Dar es Salaam to contribute to this now worldwide program focused on creating harmony and stability at the nexus of animal, human and environmental needs. I have since gone on to work at numerous conservation field sites in Africa, as well as support various policy initiatives aimed at improving the conservation status of great apes and other equally important fauna.
At 83, Jane continues to travel the world spreading her message of hope: every individual can make a difference in protecting the future of our planet. There are countless people around the globe whose lives Jane has touched, including mine. Scientists she has inspired to enter the conservation field, heads of state influenced by her ambitious desire for positive change in environmental policy, school teachers using Jane’s work to encourage their students to follow in her footsteps and, even better, create a path of their own in an effort to make the world a better place.
I have been fortunate to maintain contact with Jane since that first meeting. I’ve visited her at her childhood home in England, tracked chimpanzees in the forest with her at Gombe and, more recently, introduced her to my wife and son from where I write, in Rwanda. She continues to inspire me to do more and to continue to try and make a difference. I can only hope that after working with so many aspiring young conservationists throughout my time in Africa that some of her energy and ability to inspire has rubbed off on me and I’ve been able to pass it onto the next generation of conservationists.
David Greer is Advisor to the African Great Apes Program of World Wildlife Fund
Drawing from over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage that has been tucked away in the National Geographic archives for over 50 years, award-winning director Brett Morgen tells the story of JANE, a woman whose chimpanzee research challenged the male-dominated scientific consensus of her time and revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. Set to a rich orchestral score from legendary composer Philip Glass, the film offers an unprecedented, intimate portrait of Jane Goodall — a trailblazer who defied the odds to become one of the world’s most admired conservationists. JANE is now playing in theaters. For show times and tickets, visit: www.janethemovie.com.