A Visit with Jane Goodall
Dr. Jane Goodall recently paid a brief visit to Uganda. As a primatologist and advocate for animals and the environment, Dr. Goodall travels the world about 300 days a year to educate and inspire people of all ages. Her visit here was one of numerous stops in a tour to various African countries. Jack and I were fortunate to be invited to a small event at the Jane Goodall Institute office here in Uganda. Jane gave a short talk before mingling and chatting with guests. In it, she discussed the many changes in science and society that have altered the course of chimpanzee research and life here in Africa. Technology, she explained, has both simplified field research and opened new possibilities to answer a myriad of novel questions. In addition, as deforestation accelerates, new issues arise regarding how to protect chimpanzees and so many other species that depend on forests for their survival. As always, Jane advocated an optimistic attitude toward the future, citing the reasons she remains hopeful in the face of environmental destruction that sometimes seems overwhelmingly bleak.
For us, this message of hope was a welcome reminder. It is one that I carry with me as we trip over felled tree branches and listen to the buzz of chainsaws on an almost daily basis. I also remind myself of the example she sets that good science and conservation need not be mutually exclusive endeavors. I admire and respect my colleagues who share this attitude and work toward conservation while still conducting groundbreaking work.
After our chat with her, Jack and I were brimming with the kind of enthusiasm that few people but Jane can inspire. We only regretted that my field assistant Nick was unable to attend. Jane even discussed the plight of people just like him: youth who understandably feel cynical about the world around them, largely because of the environmental damage caused by previous generations. Jack and I have tried to encourage him that he can achieve positive change despite how dismal things may seem. As part of this effort, we introduced him to Jane’s scientific work and advocacy. Months ago, I found a copy of one of her books in a Kampala bookstore and gave it to him as a birthday gift to help satisfy his growing curiosity about our study animals which, he observed, seem remarkably like him. (Watching simple acts like the similar strategy chimpanzees and humans use to eat a stalk of sugar cane have provided some of his biggest “ah ha” moments!)
I borrowed Nick’s book copy and brought it along with us to the meeting. I told Jane about Nick’s brightness and enthusiasm as well as his occasional sense of deep pessimism. She responded by writing him a personal message in the book, a reminder that he should never give up and that he can indeed make a difference. Jane has written this message for thousands of people in thousands of books around the world, but these particular words were meant just for Nick. When he read the message, he smiled a knowing smile that she wrote these words just for him, that she was aware of his struggles to stay positive. I hope he keeps it and uses it as a reminder of the impact he can make. He’ll need a good reminder now and then as he moves forward in a career of science and conservation. Indeed, it is a reminder we can all use.
Thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Panta Kasoma, and the staff of the Jane Goodall Institute for a memorable and inspiring day.
Author's Note: This post was originally published at Scientific American in 2013.