“We Must Develop a New Relationship With the Natural World”

A Conversation with Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE (Part 2 of 2)

Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE is an ethologist and environmentalist, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Through more than 60 years of ground-breaking work, she has not only shown us the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction; she has also redefined species conservation to include the needs of local people and the environment. Today there are 25 Jane Goodall Institutes working to support JGI’s core environmental initiatives.

Dr Goodall was a speaker at the 50th St. Gallen Symposium on “Trust Matters”. Prior to the symposium, she talked about the imperatives stemming from the coronavirus pandemic for environmental action and the role of trust for environmental conservation to Grégoire Roos, St. Gallen Leader of Tomorrow.

This is the second part of this interview. You can find the first part here.

Roos: This shows, again, if need be, that education is fundamental. Talking of which… The Jane Goodall Institute, which you founded in 1977 and which is now present in 25 countries around the world, has achieved tremendous success over the past 40 years. Some initiatives have been active for decades and impacted thousands of lives across communities from all walks of life. You’ve just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Roots & Shoots programme, which fosters intergenerational dialogue to raise awareness of the fragility of our planet and ecosystems. In many regards, the Jane Goodall Institute has done more for the planet and society than what politics often promises and seldom delivers, and you’ve done so without government support. How can civil society (and especially the younger generation) take its part in the current discussion around climate change, deforestation and all the great crises of the Anthropocene?

Dr Goodall: Roots & Shoots began with twelve high-school students, and has now got kindergartens, universities, everything in between, with members in over sixty countries and it is basically spreading all the time. Its message is that every single one of us makes an impact every single day. And because I learnt about the interconnection of everything in the rainforest, the importance of every little species, then we decided, when we had a meeting with these first young twelve leaders, that we would have every group of Roots & Shoots choose three projects. We won’t actually tell them what to do; they will choose, depending on what they care about. But between them, they must do a project that helps people, a project that helps animals (including domestic animals) and a project that helps the environment. Because they’re all interrelated, you simply can’t do one without considering the others.

Roos: Just like with Tacare…

Dr Goodall: Precisely! People said “oh but you can’t do health, education, forestry, agriculture and all the rest, you’ve got to focus!” And I said no! What’s the point of educating a girl if she goes home and gets sick because there isn’t a good clinic? And so on… So I think Roots & Shoots is growing so fast because the young people are empowered. We listen to them, we let them choose. Yes, we advise and we hope that many of them will join global campaigns – the most recent is planting trees and restoring forests. And of course it depends to some extent on their age. We’re also getting a number of groups comprised of the staff of big corporations.

So how does civil society get involved you ask? Well it’s education really, raising awareness, empowering as many young leaders as possible. Which is what I’m actually trying to do now, sitting here, in the house where I grew up and where I’ve been grounded since the beginning of this pandemic. Where I used to travel 300 days a year around the world on different lecture tours, with a few days here in between, I’m now sedentary and engaging with people digitally. And I’ve actually managed to reach not hundreds of thousands as I initially thought, but apparently millions more people, in many more countries than I possibly could have done when I was travelling.

And the message that I have is: we are at the point where, if we don’t take action, all of us, to do things to help the environment, make wise choices every day on what we do, what we buy, asking ourselves the right questions (did it harm the environment? Was it cruel to animals? Is it cheap because of bad wages in developing countries, which is so often the case?), then we may lose the big battle for survival. Every single day, every single person can make ethical decisions on how they live. And this is what I’m pushing for. Truth is: big companies are actually beginning to change, it’s a fact. Sometimes because of consumer pressure, sometimes – if not often – because children are changing their parents and grandparents, some of whom are in high positions like CEOs of major companies.

It is important that people change from within, understand the dangers we face if we carry on with business as usual and truly understand that there simply can’t be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources. We MUST develop a new relationship with the natural world and a new and more sustainable, greener, economy. They must realise that change is desperately necessary if they care and understand that the future of their children and grandchildren is at risk if action is not taken now. They must acknowledge that they have a responsibility to protect the environment for the health of the planet and future generations. They must understand that we are part of the natural world, we depend on it. And we continue to destroy it to our peril.

Roos: So, again, we always go back to the question of empowerment, but from a new perspective here. You don’t just empower people by giving them the tools to take action; you also empower them by giving them hope –and this exactly where and why politics is blatantly failing today…

Dr Goodall: Yes, absolutely. That’s why I work, night and day, to share and spread all the hope I can possibly find within me…

Dr Jane Goodall with alpha male Figan at Gombe National Park in Tanzania. © The Jane Goodall Institute / By Derek Bryceson

Roos: We talked of Roots & Shoots, one of the most successful programmes of the Jane Goodall Institute. But let’s not forget you’re a primatologist at heart, and that chimpanzees remain at the centre of your work. The Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, launched in 1992 in the Republic of Congo, has become the largest chimpanzee sanctuary on the whole African continent. Tchimpounga has been the home to more than 150 orphan chimps victims of bushmeat hunters. Among these chimps, the case of Wounda is particularly moving and also says a lot about animals’ cognitive capacities.

Six years ago, you travelled to the Tchimpounga reserve to witness the reintroduction of Wounda, an orphan female chimp, set free in the forest after several months of treatment and recovery in a vet clinic. You actually accompanied Wounda and her carers talking to her all along the way to reassure her. When you all arrived and Wounda left her cage, she suddenly turned to you and embraced you, literally hugging you, although you had not been part of the team who had treated her and she had only met you a few hours before… This must have been particularly touching. But how did she know she could trust you, and that you would not react negatively and let yourself be embraced? You must have sent invisible signals, in a way. How do animals feel this alchemy?

Dr Goodall: Well… I’ve always had this ability to interact with animals. So often people say to me “oh my dog’s never gone up to a stranger before”, or things like that. So yes, I believe you’re right to talk of alchemy, but I think it’s indescribable. And yes, it was extraordinary with Wounda, because I had only met her that day. And the only time when I was able to interact with her was when she was in her little travelling cage in the boat on the way to the island given us by the government of Congo, because Tchimpounga was actually so overcrowded. On the islands the chimpanzees still have to be fed – there is not enough wild food. But it is a fantastic environment and the chimps can be well cared for. And we really hope to be able to introduce some of them back into the real wild if we can find the right place, but that’s not easy.

Anyway, to return to Wounda: on her way to the island she was with people she knew – on board was Rebeca, the veterinarian who had cured Wounda who is also the director of the sanctuary, and also several of her African caregivers whom she knew and trusted well. And Rebeca’s husband Fernando who recorded the whole incident for us. But I felt Wounda must be wondering what on earth was happening to her, where she was going… So I talked to her through the bars. Finally the cage was lifted onto the island. She came out, climbed on top of the cage, looked round and then suddenly turned to me and gave me that amazing, close and gentle embrace. And one of the caregivers asked me, just like you: “how did she know?”… Of course she obviously didn’t know that I was the person responsible for this sanctuary. Somehow she sensed something about me, that other animals have sensed. It’s very strange. You could almost say it’s like telepathic communication, or something like that. But whatever she thought, that particular embrace from Wounda that day is probably the most amazing thing that’s ever happened in my life.

The Jane Goodall Institute currently operates not only Tchimpounga, but also Chimp Eden in South Africa. I did start Sweetwaters in Kenya and Ngamba Island in Uganda, but luckily they were taken over by other people, because they’re very expensive to run. Infants used to be sold in the markets as pets, or sent overseas to zoos and circuses. It was illegal, but until there was somewhere for the orphans to go, government officials seldom confiscated the infants – and if they did, they ended up in really terrible local zoos (that are now improving). But now there are sanctuaries with very well trained and very caring dedicated staff. Let me end the Wounda story. She adapted well to her new island home, and became the dominant female in a group of thirty.

Roos: And what about babies? Do they recover enough confidence to give birth?

Dr Goodall: Good question. Well, all of our female chimps are actually on birth control, because we can hardly look after the ones we have and so we can’t afford to have babies born when there are still babies coming in from outside. In all these years, only three implants went wrong, and one of those was Wounda. And so about a year after she was released on the island, Wounda had a baby! The baby is now four-years old, extremely healthy, and the name of that baby is… Hope! You talked of hope earlier and you were right. And without hope you see, why bother? I mean, if you honestly think that everything you do is not going to be worth it, then you wouldn’t bother. If we hope that what we’re doing is going to do good, then we’re encouraged to take action.

Does that mean that there is no reason to feel depressed about the state of the world? On the contrary, there is a great deal that is very depressing! But if you choose to do something to improve things and encourage others to help, then you see that you can make a difference. And then you realise that around the world there are millions of people also behaving ethically and making a difference and that this will make a huge difference. Some people can contribute money. More and more are reducing meat consumption and moving towards a plant-based diet because they understand the terrible cruelty to animals in “factory farms” and the enormous harm to the environment – because they all have to be fed. Finally people are realising that individual action does indeed make change – it’s beginning to make change already.

Roos: I think your own life, and the causes and values you stand for, show us that you can only change things if you empower people, and you can only empower people if you give them hope. But we’ve got to actually be actors of hope, not just spectators.

Dr Goodall: Absolutely. We mustn’t just sit and wait for other people to make change. We’ve all got to roll up our sleeves and DO something. Doing something and seeing it helps and knowing others are doing something too, gives us hope. And when you have hope you work even harder and inspire others. Change won’t happen unless we all take action. More and more people are taking action – including some powerful people in decision-making positions. Along with millions and millions of young people. That’s why I’m hopeful for the future.


Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE is an ethologist and environmentalist, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. In July 1960, at the age of 26, she travelled from England to what is now Tanzania and ventured into the little-known world of the wild chimpanzees living in Gombe.

Equipped with a notebook, binoculars and a fascination with wildlife, Dr Goodall braved a realm of unknowns to give the world a remarkable window into humankind’s closest living relatives. Through more than 60 years of ground-breaking work, she has not only shown us the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction; she has also redefined species conservation to include the needs of local people and the environment.

Today there are 25 Jane Goodall Institutes working to support JGI’s core programmes including TACARE, a community conservation programme, two sanctuaries for orphan chimpanzees and Roots & Shoots, JGI’s environmental and humanitarian programme empowering young people of all ages to become involved in hands-on projects for their community, animals and the environment in more than 65 countries.

Dr Goodall has received many awards and honorary degrees, authored books for adults and children and featured in numerous documentaries and films.

For more information about the Jane Goodall Institute and its programs, visit janegoodall.org.

Grégoire Roos is a French geopolitical analyst. He has been a Leader of Tomorrow of the St. Gallen Symposium ever since 2014.


This is the second part of this interview. You can find the first part here.

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