Jane Goodall, gray in complexion but resplendent in a red shawl, is sitting on the sofa in a dimly lit room in west London. The scientist-turned-environmentalist has just arrived from Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, had a rotten journey, has a hacking cough, but accepts it all stoically, rejecting the suggestion that the heating be turned up.
She is here with her talisman, a stuffed monkey called Mr H, given to her by the blind magician Gary Haun (“the Amazing Haundini”), who thought it was a chimp. Goodall, who has a childlike quality, sees a metaphorical significance in a blind magician able to pull the wool over the eyes of the sighted. The letter H, standing for Hope, also attracts her.
The world seems to divide into people who are besotted with Goodall, and people who have barely heard of her. She is more prominent in the US, where the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is headquartered, than in the UK, where she was born in 1934 and where, after half a lifetime spent documenting the lives of chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park overlooking Lake Tanganyika in the far west of Tanzania, she now lives once more, with her sister Judy in their old family home in Bournemouth.
Our meeting, though, takes place at an apartment in Notting Hill, west London, belonging to Mary Lewis, a JGI employee with a cut-glass English accent who appears to run Goodall’s life as if it were a military operation. The trigger is a book Goodall has written with two fellow environmentalists: a collection of stories of survival called Hope for Animals and Their World, the written-by-committee feel of which must of course be forgiven because of its subject matter.
Even I, an intermittent eco-worrier, was moved by the battle to save the California condor, and I feel doubly guilty for criticizing the book because at the end of the interview she insists on signing it for me: “For Stephen. Together we can make this a better world for all. Thank you for helping.” Can is underlined, all is both underlined and capitalized.
These days, in her mid-70s, Goodall is more shaman than scientist. She has set aside a planned companion volume to her seminal study The Chimpanzees of Gombe, and instead tours the world preaching the need for sustainability, harmony and respect for the natural world (this makes me worry about the size of her carbon footprint).
It was in 1986 that, at a conference on chimps, she realized the extent of the crisis affecting them across Africa and determined, overnight it seems, on a life as an environmental evangelist. One journalist who has followed her career likens her to a “peripatetic Mother Teresa,” and it’s a good description: she combines stateliness with a kind of holiness, her religion a predominantly green one.
The message of her new book, with its stories about black-footed ferrets, American crocodiles and whooping cranes, is surprisingly upbeat. “My job seems to have increasingly become giving people hope, so that instead of doing nothing and sinking into depression, they take action,” she tells me. “It’s very clear to me that unless we get a critical mass of people involved in trying to create a better world for our great-grandchildren, we’d better stop having children altogether.”
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT
Goodall has chosen to focus on the heroes fighting — and occasionally winning — individual battles, in the hope of attracting others to participate in a war she does not yet accept is lost. “I’ve seen areas totally despoiled that have been brought back to life. Animals that were almost gone have, with captive breeding or protection in the wild, been given another chance. If we stop now, everything’s going to go. So we have to keep on doing our best for as long as we can, and if we’re going to die, let’s die fighting.” The apocalypse is conjured up in a croaky and curiously detached monotone.