3 Rays of Hope
By Jane Goodall, PhD

It was in 1960 that I arrived in Tanzania's Gombe National Park to learn what I could about the chimpanzees who lived there. I had always been fascinated by animals and from a very young age had decided that I would go to Africa and study them. Fortunately I had an amazing mother who, instead of telling me to give up such a ridiculous notion, had always encouraged me, saying that if I worked hard and took advantage of every opportunity, then my dream might come true.

The opportunity came in 1957. I had an invitation to visit an old school friend whose family had moved to Kenya. I worked as a waitress to save up enough money for the fare by boat to Mombasa. A short time after I arrived I heard about the famed palaeontologist, Dr. Louis Leakey, and went to see him. He offered me a job working with him at the Natural History Museum in Nairobi, and eventually gave me the opportunity to study chimpanzees in Tanzania.

Louis Leakey was not only a palaeontologist, a seeker of our prehistoric roots, he was also a man in love with Africa and its incomparable animals. He wrote: This great wildlife population is, I believe, unmatched anywhere else on Earth.

The variety is still there as Dr. Leakey knew it: mangrove swamps, open grasslands, rainforests, desert and near-desert, mountains that themselves encompass varying habitats on their slopes. And the animals are still there, including the ones he liked to call the giants - the elephants, the rhinos, the Cape buffalo, the hippos. And we must not forget the giraffe, the eland, and the lion - king of beasts himself.

Dr. Leakey once told of the reaction that a visitor had after beholding animals from the porch of a game watchers' hotel. Spread out before the visitor were some 40 elephants and a herd of buffalo, all jostling for space. Now and then a baby sidled up to its elephant mother to nurse, or an elephant would squeal a warning if a buffalo came too close at the water hole. "It's prehistoric!" the watcher exclaimed.

Africa does indeed project a feeling of prehistory, a feeling that we have been there, that we have come from there. But that primeval image now is threatening to disappear, along with the wildlife that was formerly so abundant. Africa's magnificent animals - the elephant, the rhino, the hippo, the gorilla, the chimpanzee, as well as lesser known birds and mice and frogs - are disappearing because their forest habitat is being destroyed by the human population explosion. In addition, many animals are disappearing because, in some parts of Africa, they are hunted for the "bush meat" trade - chimpanzees, gorillas and all kinds of endangered creatures are shot or trapped for food.

In the old days, the hunter would hunt for meat for his family and perhaps for the village, a sustainable form of hunting. But today loggers are making roads into the heart of the last remaining great rainforests of the African continent. Hunters can go deeper and deeper into the forest. After they shoot the animals, they can put the bodies - dried usually in the sun or by smoke - onto logging trucks for shipment into a town or settlement. So it is not just subsistence hunting anymore. It has become a business - making money by killing wild animals and selling them as food in the markets in parts of central and western Africa where bush meat is preferred over beef or goat, or any other kind of domestic meat.

This is why chimpanzees, our closest relatives, are rapidly disappearing from many of the forests where, at the turn of the century, they roamed in their hundreds of thousands. Today there are no more than 200-250 thousand left. And the rate of their decline is accelerating as logging, mining, the bush meat trade and the growing human population strike ever more strongly at their dwindling numbers.

Why should we care? Does it matter if chimpanzees become extinct? For the past 37 years we have been learning more and more about the similarities to ourselves. We know, for instance, that we differ from them genetically, in the composition of the DNA, by only just over one percent. There are similarities in the structure of the blood and the immune response system. And the anatomy of the chimpanzee's brain and central nervous system is more like ours than is that of any living creature.

Most fascinating to me are the incredible similarities in behavior - the long childhood, the importance of learning in an individual's life, the affectionate bonds that develop between family members and other individuals within a community. In their communication, chimpanzees show gestures that we see in human culture around the world - kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting one another on the back, swaggering, tickling.

Chimpanzees can reason and solve simple problems - as demonstrated by their use of objects as tools for a variety of purposes in the wild. They can use and understand abstract symbols in their communication, as has been shown by language acquisition experiments. They are capable of tremendous memory feats. And all of us who have worked closely with chimpanzees, in natural or semi-natural situations, have absolutely no hesitation in affirming that they show emotions similar to - or perhaps identical to - those we call joy, sorrow, fear and despair.

Once we are prepared to accept that human beings are not the only ones with personalities, we can gain new respect, not only for chimpanzees, but also for many of the other amazing non-human beings with whom we share this planet. And nowhere are animals more in danger than in the great rainforests, such as those in Africa, that are being destroyed so relentlessly.

It was fortunate for me that Louis Leakey chose Tanzania (or Tanganyika as it was then) for my chimpanzee study, for when independence came in 1961 there were strong wildlife protection laws in place. And politically Tanzania has been among the most stable of all the post-colonial era countries in Africa.

Unfortunately though, the economy grew gradually weaker, and it became ever more difficult to enforce wildlife laws. The poacher had much to gain - he was likely to get more money by killing an elephant and selling its tusks than he could expect to earn in ten years by legal means. For some, poaching became big business, and gangs were armed with sophisticated automatic weapons and new vehicles, while anti-poaching patrols often had ancient cars with insufficient fuel, and guns with little ammunition. And the same kind of thing happened in many other newly independent countries in Africa.

In order to preserve wild animal species it is, of course, necessary to preserve their habitat also. The tropical forest presents special problems: the fragile soils quickly lose fertility once the tree cover has gone; soil erosion sets in, especially where there is overgrazing of cattle and goats; crops become less and less productive. Gradually, where all was lush and green, the desert takes over. This spells doom for the wildlife - and for the villagers who have cut down the trees. They suffer crippling poverty and, in the struggle to survive from day to day, they cannot concern themselves with what will happen in the years ahead.

Even when laws are passed to protect the rainforest, those laws are hard, if not impossible, to enforce. The only possible solution is to involve the local people in conservation efforts - to make it worth their while to cooperate, and help them to understand the whole picture.

The Jane Goodall Institute tries to do this in its various projects in Tanzania, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda and Kenya. We try to boost local economies by employing local people - as many as possible. At Gombe local villagers have been trained to help with our scientific observations of the chimps and baboons. They have learned to care about these forest beings, and know them as individuals. For 37 years there has been no poaching in Gombe National Park. In the Congo we have our largest sanctuary for orphan chimpanzees - pathetic by-products of the bush meat trade, sold for a few dollars as pets, or seized from their dead mother for the live animal trade. The government confiscates these orphans, pet owners give them up, and the Jane Goodall Institute must care for them. We use them as ambassadors, as a focus for conservation education, teaching the local people, especially children, about the dangers of deforestation. We also buy as much locally-grown produce as we can to feed the chimps, and we are building a school and a dispensary for the villages around the sanctuary.

As we move towards the millennium it is easy to be overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness as we look around the world.

Is there, in fact, hope for Africa's future? Yes. Provided human populations develop programs that will stabilize, or optimize their growth rate. It is very important to implement child healthcare programs along with family planning so that women can expect that their children will live - instead of knowing, as they do today, that many of them will die. There are many signs of hope. Along a lakeshore in Tanzania, for example, villagers are planting trees where all the trees had disappeared. Women are taking more control over their lives, and once they become better educated, then the birth rate begins to drop. And the children are being taught about the dire effects of habitat destruction.

There is the terrible pollution around the world, the balance of nature is disturbed, and we are destroying our beautiful planet. There are fears of new epidemics for which there will be no drugs, and rather than fight the cause, we torture millions of animals in the name of medical progress. But in spite of all this, I do have hope. And my hope is based on three factors.

Firstly, we have at last begun to understand and face up to the problems that threaten us and the survival of life on earth as we knot it. Surely then, we can use our problem-solving abilities, our brains, and joining hands around the world, find ways to live that are more in harmony with nature. Indeed, many companies have begun "greening" their operations, and millions of people, worldwide are beginning to realize that each one of us has a responsibility to the environment and our descendants, and that the way each one of us lives our life does matter, does make a difference.

My second reason for hope lies in the tremendous energy, enthusiasm and commitment of a growing number of young people around the world. As they find out about the environmental and social problems that are now part of their heritage, they want to fight to right the wrongs. Of course they do - they have a vested interest in this, for it will be their world tomorrow. They will be moving into leadership positions, into the workforce, becoming parents themselves. Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.

My third reason for hope lies in the indomitable nature of the human spirit. There are so many people who have dreamed seemingly unattainable dreams and, because they never gave up, achieved their goals against all the odds, or blazed a path along which others could follow. As I travel around the world I meet so many incredible and amazing human beings. They inspire me. They inspire those around them.

So let us move into the next millennium with hope, for without it all we can do is eat and drink the last of our resources as we watch our planet slowly die. Instead, let us have faith in ourselves, in our intellect, in our staunch spirit. Let us develop respect for all living things. Let us try to replace impatience and intolerance with understanding and compassion. And love.

For more information about projects of the Jane Goodall Institute, or how you can make a contribution, write to P.O. Box 14890, Silver Spring, MD 20911-4890; e-mail JANEGOODALL@wcsu.ctstateu.edu or call (800) 592-JANE. (Reprinted with permission from Sterling Magazine Nov/Dec 1997)

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