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Jane Goodall: 50 years among the chimps

Posted by: Craig Woolheater on October 20th, 2010

Famed scientist Jane Goodall recounts the thrills — and the sorrows — of life with her friends in the Tanzanian jungle

I remember them so well. Goliath, who lost his alpha position when Mike, using his superior intelligence, learned to enhance his dominance displays by hitting and kicking empty four-gallon tin cans ahead of him. William, the clown, who once stole a blanket, dragged it up the hillside, then draped it over his head and felt around himself like a child who has been blindfolded.

Is it really 50 years ago that I stepped ashore, for the first of who-knows-how-many hundreds of times, onto the sandy beach of Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, now Gombe National Park? Has half a century passed since I saw, for the first time, a wild chimpanzee feeding high in a palm tree? It seems almost impossible to believe.

Today, the last of my original chimpanzee friends is gone: Fifi, who was just a year old in 1960, disappeared and must have died in 2004. But seven of her offspring and seven grandchildren still roam the forests. Also in 2004, Goblin fell sick and died. I first saw him a few hours after his birth in 1964, still attached to the umbilical cord. His younger sister Gremlin and her family are still around. And there is Sparrow, a female we have known since the mid-1960s, who, with her daughter Sandi, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, form another successful and growing family. Sadly, though, I cannot recognize the younger chimpanzees — I am there only twice a year, for a few days at a time.

Research continues

Fifty years later, a team of Tanzanian field staff and a small group of students from around the world continue the Gombe research. There are databases, satellites and smartphones involved, which greatly enhance our research and conservation efforts. Yet in 1960, I roamed alone in the forests with my pencil and notebook, and wrote up my notes by the light of a hurricane lamp.

If I close my eyes the early days are so very vivid. I can so well recall the sense of unreality I felt as we chugged northward up Lake Tanganyika toward Gombe, passing the densely forested valleys that brought small, clear streams down from the ridge of the Great Rift Valley. How would I ever find the chimpanzees? I wondered. My mother, Vanne, and I were with David Anstey, the game ranger in charge of the southern parks, who would see that we were properly established and stay a couple of nights to ensure that all was well. On board with us, too, was our little 12-foot aluminum boat that would be our only link with civilization.

And oh! How deeply I remember David Greybeard, my favourite chimpanzee of all time, who lost his fear of me before the others, who visited my camp to eat oil palm nuts and helped himself to some bananas from my table. David became the first chimpanzee to take a banana from my hand, accepting an offering of friendship from a member of a different species. It was David who opened for me the door into a magical new world– the world of the wild chimpanzees of Gombe, for his calm acceptance of my presence helped the others to realize that, after all, I was not so terrifying as they had thought.

There was one occasion I can never forget. I had followed him deep into the forest. He stopped to rest, and as I sat near him I saw a ripe palm nut and held it toward him on the palm of my hand. He turned his head away. I held my hand closer and then he turned back, looked directly into my eyes, took the nut, dropped it and very gently pressed my fingers with his in a gesture of reassurance. We each understood the other, bridging our two worlds, communicating with gestures that had probably been used by our common ancestor six million years ago.

David’s companions

And there were David’s companions. Flo, the much-loved matriarch, with her family — adult Faben (who would lose the use of one arm in the terrible polio epidemic of 1966); adolescent Figan (who would become the most powerful alpha male in Gombe’s history, reigning for 10 years); and Fifi (who would become the most prolific mother we have known).

Then there was Olly, so unlike Flo, timid and nervous, her neck swollen by what appeared to be a goitre (common among humans in the area). And her enchanting infant Gilka, who suffered so much tragedy. Gilka lost her infant brother, and lost partial use of one hand during the 1966 polio epidemic. She developed a fungus infection that horribly deformed her face. And finally she lost both of her infants to the cannibal mother-infant pair Passion and Pom.

A family affair

The National Geographic Society, having given me a grant to continue at Gombe after my first six months there, naturally wanted photographic and film material. Some of the first photos were taken by my sister Judy. Louis Leakey, the famed anthropologist who first sent me to Gombe, found money for her to come out for a few months because I argued that she looked and sounded a bit like me. I was terrified my hard-won relationship with the chimpanzees would be compromised by the arrival of a stranger.

But when Hugo van Lawick arrived in 1962 the chimpanzees seemed to feel “any friend of Jane’s is a friend of ours” and most of them accepted him and his cameras quite readily. We were able to document, for the first time, tool using and tool making. Hunting and sharing the kill. And the development of an infant in the wild — Flo’s son Flint. In fact, after Hugo and I married in 1964, we rushed back to Gombe instead of having a honeymoon because of that birth.

And three years later it was my turn to give birth. Hugo Eric Louis, nicknamed Grub, spent a good deal of his early years at Gombe.

Since the 1960s so much has changed. In the early days we had supper around a campfire each evening, and our work was done by lamp-light. Today most of the buildings (all on the shore hidden away in the trees) are fitted with solar panels, and we eat indoors. During the 1960s there was only about one motorized “water taxi” per week carrying people from Kigoma to villages up the lake, and my own little boat went into town only occasionally for supplies — and letters.

Now, not only are there water taxis — at least six — that pass up and down the lake each day, but also boats hired by tourists and boats on errands for Gombe National Park and the Gombe Stream Research Center. And it is possible to send and receive e-mails from the park office. Gombe is no longer the gloriously isolated and remote place it once was.

Our early maps, used to plot the range of the chimpanzees, were derived from black-and-white aerial photos. Today we use GIS, GPS and satellite imagery to create detailed maps of the chimpanzees’ range, location of food sources and so on. And there is other new technology: DNA profiling, done from fecal samples. Collecting poo has always been important.

Keeping our distance

At first we simply poked around to get a better idea of the frequency with which various foods were eaten. Now sophisticated DNA profiling can inform us about genetic relationships between chimpanzees. And, for the first time, we can be sure as to which males fathered which infants. Before we could only make informed guesses. Finally, we can use fecal samples to learn about disease prevalence.

Today we try to keep a certain distance from the chimpanzees while observing them — their immune system is uncannily like our own and we know they can catch many of our infectious diseases. This is particularly worrying in light of the fact that tourists now visit Gombe regularly.

Range is diminished

The forests that once surrounded Gombe on three sides are almost gone. The lake forming the western boundary still gently caresses or, at times, crashes in great waves, onto the shore. But its once-crystal-clear water is often clouded by the soil washed down by the streams flowing through bare hills outside the park. The chimpanzees of the Kasekela Community still roam the hills and valleys of their central range. But the communities to the north and especially to the south are diminished. They used to wander outside the boundaries of the tiny 35-square-kilometre park in search of food and mates. Now they are trapped, their wanderings curtailed by cultivated fields beyond the boundaries.

But some things have not changed. When I climb to the Peak (they call it “Jane’s Peak” now) and look out over the familiar landscape, I can recapture the feelings I had as a young woman, the excitement of never knowing what I would see, what new thing I would discover. The waterfall, deep in Kakombe Valley, has not changed. It is still a place for spiritual refreshment, and I can sit, listening to the roar of falling water, and remember the first time I watched a group of chimpanzees performing their rhythmic waterfall displays: With bristling hair, they stamp through the shallow stream, sometimes standing upright and swaying rhythmically from foot to foot, hurling huge rocks, then sitting and watching the water as it falls. Surely these displays are triggered by a sense of wonder.

And I can look to the future with hope. Already, the villagers around Gombe have, thanks to our community-centred conservation program, become our partners. Trees, many of them 30 metres high, now clothe the bare slopes outside the national park, and leafy corridors are slowly moving toward other fragmented patches of forest, other remnant groups of chimpanzees.

Some day, the Gombe chimpanzees will no longer be isolated, doomed to gradual extinction due to inbreeding and disease. Gombe, with its chimpanzees and baboons (we began studying these primates in 1966 and the research continues today), its forests and birds, lizards and butterflies, is my spiritual refuge.

It gives me the strength to leave the peace and go back on the road. Sometimes we must leave what we love to save it — and so I stay on the road, raising awareness and support, always thinking of Gombe.Jane Goodall

Source: The Vancouver Sun, 50 years among the chimps

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster.


2 Responses to “Jane Goodall: 50 years among the chimps”

  1. red_pill_junkie responds:

    50 years among chimps seem a hell of a lot less extenuating than 37 among humans.

  2. mystery_man responds:

    red_pill_junky- 37 years huh? Same here. I’ll second your opinion by the way.



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