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It seems that half of Nairobi had gathered at the National Museum on Saturday, at least the half that we know. Jane Goodall had decided to work Nairobi into her busy travel lecture schedule and this was one talk no one wanted to miss. Just in case there were some in the audience who were not already hanging on her every word when she took the podium, Goodall made sure she had everyone’s complete attention.

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During her many years studying chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, Goodall became the only human to date who has been allowed to join a chimpanzee society. She spent 22 months living with a troop of chimps she studied — until she was forced to leave by a new aggressive alpha male — and on Saturday she showed off some of the communication skills she acquired, launching into a sonorous chimpanzee greeting that was echoed by a fellow researcher from the back of the auditorium.

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A gifted storyteller, Goodall took us for a walk through memory lane along the path that led her to become the world’s best known primatologist and a passionate environmental conservation activist. She recounted how as a little girl she was fascinated by chickens. Unable to figure out how something as big as an egg could come from a bird that did not, by all appearances, possess any suitably large orifices, she hid herself in the family hen-house for four-and-a-half hours until she could solve the mystery, scaring her mother half to death with her absence in the process.

Recognizing Jane’s passion for animals and the fascination she had with the natural world, her mother suggested that she acquire secretarial skills so that she could go to work in Africa. This proved sage advice, as Goodall met Louis Leakey shortly after arriving in Kenya. Not only did Leakey take her on as a secretary, but he also sent her on one of his first paleontological digs to Oldupai Gorge, and later raised money to send her to study chimps in Gombe because he was convinced that primates held the key to understanding patterns of social behavior in humans.

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Goodall’s findings not only expanded our understanding of primate behavior, but also revolutionized mankind’s understanding of our own species. She observed chimps engaging in what until then were thought to be uniquely human behaviors — hugs, kisses, tickling, chest-thumping — and was struck by their intelligence, complex social relationships, and range of emotions, including joy, sorrow, and empathy, which were also thought to only occur in humans. She saw chimps make primitive tools, which they used to collect termites, leading Leakey to write that “we must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.”

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The transition from researcher to activist was a natural one as Goodall saw firsthand the effects environmental degradation and human overpopulation had on the animals she studied and loved. So, over the last two and a half decades, she has spent most of her time traveling the globe, speaking out against poaching, calling for greater reliance on sustainable energy sources, warning about the devastating effects of climate change, and encouraging young people the world over to become active in environmental conservation.

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She became the Ambassador for UN-GRASP, the Greater Apes Survival Partnership — the only UN Agency to be dedicated to the preservation of a single species — and it is in that capacity that she came to speak in Nairobi. Though her talk was full of reasons to be pessimistic, she ended with a message of hope, saying that she firmly believed that the “indomitable human spirit” and our capacity for compassion, which we share with apes, will ultimately win out over mankind’s greed and the environmental destruction it has wrought.

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When Gary Larson spoofed Jane Goodall in his brilliant Far Side comic, the lawyers for the Jane Goodall Institute got up in arms and drafted him a nasty cease-and-desist letter. Fortunately, Goodall had more of a sense of humor and not only did she bless the cartoon, but she also invited Larson to visit her in Gombe.

The chimp pictures are from Sweetwaters Chimpanzee sanctuary, located inside Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The picture of the gorillas is from S’s visit to Rwanda a few summers ago.

The stuffed monkey that Jane is holding was a gift from a blind magician and close friend of hers some twenty years ago, when she was in the infancy stages of her conservation activism. Not being able to see, he did not realize that he had bought a monkey rather than a stuffed chimpanzee, but he asked Jane to carry the toy with her nonetheless and she has kept it always at her side for the last two decades.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lissa #

    I am not sure who is more curious in the picture of S and the chimp? You look equally curious!

    January 28, 2013
  2. So cool! I would love to hear her speak. Lucky!!

    January 28, 2013
    • Yes, she was inspirational…it’s amazing how positive she still is even after delivering the same message over and over for decades.

      January 29, 2013

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