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Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall

by William H. Benson

April 21, 2016

     The adventure writer Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote some eighty novels based upon two characters: Tarzan and John Carter. Tarzan lived among the apes in Africa, and John Carter transported himself from Earth to Mars, where he fought and conquered the Martians. In my younger years, I read several of Burroughs’s books, as did thousands of other American kids of the twentieth century.

     The science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, said this of Burroughs, “I have been astonished to discover how often a leading biochemist or archaeologist, or astronaut when asked, ‘what happened to you when you were ten years old?’ replied, ‘Tarzan,’ ‘John Carter,’ or ‘Mr. Burroughs of course.’”

     Bradbury also said, “By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.”

     But it was not only American boys whom Burroughs influenced. There was an English girl named Jane Goodall who also read the Tarzan stories and fell in love with Africa and its wildlife and longed to live there. Jane identified with the English girl, Jane Porter, Tarzan’s wife in Burroughs’s first Tarzan adventure novel, Tarzan of the Apes, that he published in 1912.

     Unable to afford college tuition, Jane Goodall worked as a secretary and hotel waitress long enough to save her money to buy a ticket to Mombassa, Kenya. The year was 1958, and she was twenty-three. Once there, she arranged a meeting with Dr. Louis Leakey, who invited her to join him and his wife, Mary, at an archaeological dig at the Olduvai Gorge.

     Leakey then suggested that Jane should move to the forested mountains on Lake Tanganyika’s western shore in Tanzania to study the chimpanzees in their native habitat, because he understood that there was a scarcity of information about the chimp’s social habits and behavior.

     Jane, with her mother Vanne, arrived at the Gombe National Park in the summer of 1960, and there the two English ladies camped in a tent, surrounded by African fishermen, as well as bushpigs, tsetse flys, shrews, red colobus monkeys, baboons, mongooses, leopards, buffaloes, cobras, and chimpanzees.

      Daily she climbed alone to what she called, “her Peak,” a rocky outcrop that permitted her a panoramic view above and below, and with her binoculars she watched and waited. The chimpanzees though were fearful and held their distance from this strange white hairless female ape. Six months passed, and she confessed to Dr. Leakey that she had learned very little.

     Yet, she started to recognize the chimps as individuals, and she gave them names. One day in October of 1960, she observed David Greybeard insert a long piece of grass into a termite hole in order to extract termites, that he then feasted upon. This, she claimed, was evidence that chimpanzees can fashion a rudimentary tool, a skill that anthropologists had reserved only for human beings. 

     It was bananas though that won the chimpanzees’ trust in Jane. She would leave them around her and then watch as they approached. She soon met Goliath, Flo, Mike, Fifi, and Flint. She counted about fifty in the troop: fourteen males, as many females, and also the infants and adolescents.  At night, beside her campfire, she recorded into her journal all that she had observed that day.

     She noted the chimps’ dark side, their aggression. They would snatch a monkey or baboon, kill it, and eat it. They would go to war and attack a neighboring chimpanzee troop and kill all its members except the adolescent females, whom they then adopted. Then, if given a chance the male chimps would kill their own females’ infants.

     Jane wrote to Dr. Louis Leakey, and he sent a Dutch photographer named Hugo van Lawick, to capture on film her chimpanzees. Leakey told Vanne Goodall that “he had found someone just right as a husband for Jane!” Jane and Hugo did marry in 1964, and they had a single son, also named Hugo.

     In the August 1963 edition of National Geographic, one can read Jane’s article, “My Life Among Wild Chimpanzees,” and two years later National Geographic televised a documentary on Jane’s work.

     Over the years since then, she has published many books, and numerous anthropologists have joined her to observe the chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream Research Center. In 1977, she established the Jane Goodall Institute, and dedicated one program, “Roots and Shoots,” to reforesting barren lands.    

     Jane and Hugo divorced in 1974, and her second husband died of cancer in 1975. She is still thin. Her once blond hair has now grayed, but she still pulls it back into her distinctive ponytail. She travels and speaks 300 days out of the year.

     On April 3 this year, on her 82nd birthday, she spoke at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and she mentioned her worn copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s book, Africa’s animals, Tarzan, and Jane Porter. She said, “And that is how the magic of my life unfolded.”

     Friday, April 22, 2016, we mark the 46th Earth Day. Early on Jane Goodall recognized the premier importance that both animals and plants play in our planet’s existence. So we celebrate Earth Day. We can plant a tree, or we can liberate a captive chimpanzee, if not on Earth, perhaps someday on Mars. Edgar Rice Burroughs would be pleased.