The NS Interview: Jane Goodall, primatologist

“My mother never laughed at my dream of Africa”

You've been working in Tanzania for 50 years now. Does it feel as long as that?
In some ways. The whole world has changed. But when I'm there, I climb up to the peaks where I used to sit and I can recapture exactly the way I felt back then.

How has your scientific field changed?
The data is still collected crawling about in the field with pencils and paper. But there's GPS technology, and DNA profiling means we can study stress, hormones - things like that.

Does Tanzania feel like home now?
When I'm in the forest with a chimp, yes - but when I first went in 1960, there was chimp habitat everywhere. Today, it's barren hillsides.

Are you concerned about climate change?
Absolutely. Recently I went to Greenland and saw huge slabs of ice falling from an ice cliff. The Inuit elders said that 15 years ago, even in summer, there was no melting. That's seeing with your own eyes what is happening.

What is predicted for Tanzania?
The droughts and flooding will get worse. And massive deforestation leads to soil erosion and biodiversity loss.

Can the situation be salvaged?
Well, you can't expect people who are starving to respect the boundaries of a park. So, at the institute, we began working with local villagers. Now people have set land aside to form a buffer around Gombe. You can actually see little green corridors growing out to other remnant forests.

What's the hope for Gombe's future?
Eight years ago, there were only about a hundred chimps, and no way for them to increase their gene pool. Now, they can use these corridors.

Where do you draw the line between chimpanzees and human beings?
There is no sharp line, but we are different. I believe it may be a result of developing the ability to communicate, to plan for the distant future, to learn from the distant past.

Has your work affected your view of humans?
I learned from my dog long before I went to Gombe that we weren't the only beings with personalities. What the chimps did was help me to persuade others.

You've said your field, ethology, is not a hard science. What do you mean by that?
When I began in 1960, individuality wasn't an accepted thing to look for; it was about species-specific behaviour. But animal behaviour is not hard science. There's room for intuition.

Going to Tanzania as you did was an unusual move for a woman at that time.
My family has very strong women. My mother never laughed at my dream of Africa, even though everyone else did because we didn't have any money, because Africa was the "dark continent", and because I was a girl.

How important was her support?
Well, the British authorities refused to allow me to go to what was then Tanganyika on my own. So the volunteer who came with me for four months was my mother.

Do you feel you were treated differently from male colleagues as a young ethologist?
National Geographic cover girl, that was what I was. Science could take everything I said with a pinch of salt.

What lies ahead for women in science?
Women tend to be more intuitive, or to admit to being intuitive, and maybe the hard science approach isn't so attractive. The way that science is taught is very cold. I would never have become a scientist if I had been taught like that.

Do you vote?
I haven't voted, I'm afraid, for a while. I should, but I'm never there.

Do you consider yourself a political person?
I'm highly political. I spend an awful lot of time in the US trying to influence decision-makers. But I don't feel in tune with British politics.

Is there a plan?
Maybe somebody else had a plan. I didn't.

What would you like to forget?
Divorcing my first husband; the death of my second husband; the Holocaust. But if you forget, you're not as energetic about change.

Who are your heroes?
My mother and my grandmother were certainly inspirational. Muhammad Yunus, who came up with microfinance, is an all-time hero.

No scientists?
I never wanted to be a scientist, you see! But I would pick Linnaeus and Darwin.

Are we all doomed?
Yes, if we don't take action soon. We've got to stop sitting on our bottoms and leaving it up to everybody else to make the changes we want.

Defining Moments

1934 Born in London
1957 Becomes assistant to the naturalist and palaeontologist Louis Leakey
1960 Arrives at Gombe park. Travels back to England, wins funding, returns to Gombe
1965 Gains ethology PhD from Cambridge
1971 In the Shadow of Man, the best-known of more than 20 books, is published
1977 Founds the Jane Goodall Institute
1995 Awarded CBE. Made a dame in 2004
2010 Marks 50 years at Gombe