primal instincts: Jane Goodall on China

by Joshua Wickerham for that’s Shanghai, October 2006

now in her seventies, renowned primatologist Jane Goodall is fighting harder than ever for a better future

British primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall first won fame in the 1960s with her pioneering studies of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Since then she’s worked tirelessly to promote rights for all animals, chimpanzees included. In 1991, while conferring with students in Tanzania about their hopes for extracurricular programs, she founded Roots & Shoots (R&S), a youth education group that provides students with the experience to tackle problems concerning the relationship between people, animals, and the environment. In the intervening 16 years, R&S has spread to over 90 countries. China has four branches, in Beijing, Chengdu, Nanchang, and Shanghai, and there are R&S clubs in hundreds of local schools. Greg MacIsaac founded the first Chinese branch in Beijing in 1993. In 2003, the Shanghai branch became the first foreign non-profit organization to be granted official status by the Chinese government [see Terms of Development, Sept 2006], followed by the branch in Nanchang this year. Goodall will be in Beijing and Shanghai this month.

that’s: You first visited China about 13 years ago. Since then, what changes have you observed?

JG: Well, I’ve definitely seen changes in children’s attitudes towards animals; for example, they have a better understanding of dogs, and are even more concerned about birds kept in little cages.

When I first came, China was much more closed than it is today. It was less Western. There weren’t any McDonald’s; there weren’t any Starbucks. It was a very different feeling; you really felt like you were going somewhere different. But, of course, it was already very polluted, even though there were probably a quarter the number of cars. There were lots of bicycles.

that’s: Are you optimistic that China’s environmental problems can be solved?

JG: I think the main hope lies with the people. First of all, I have met so many people who really care. I’ve met so many government officials who are desperately worried about the degradation of the environment. I think it’s just very difficult. There’s a tremendous conflict between the environment and economic development, and I think it’s spun way out of control. This happens in many countries as they develop, but unfortunately for China, it’s just so huge. The problem is huge.

that’s: Is the choice between economic development and sustainable development a false one?

JG: Yes, it should never be a choice. It’s not a case of either/or. It has to be hand-in-hand. If you have economic development outstripping the environment at the cost of the environment, then you’re destroying the future for everyone.

that’s: If you had had the chance to study wild animals in China instead of Africa, would you have taken it?

JG: Well, probably I would have been attracted, like so many people, to giant pandas. Or I might have gone and studied golden, or snub-nosed monkeys in the high mountain forests.

that’s: You received your doctorate without getting a Bachelors degree. Which is more important: hands-on studies or formal education?

JG: I did my whole one and a half year [of chimp] studies without a degree of any sort. I think hands-on education is really, really important, especially for children. At schools, if they learn by doing, it’s gonna stick. That’s why I think Roots & Shoots is so important. That’s why I’m so delighted at how fast [the organization] is growing.

that’s: Is the Chinese attitude toward hands-on education changing?


JG: I think there’s much more willingness to involve the children in this open way of learning. Many universities have set up Roots & Shoots programs; they’re doing a fabulous job, really making it work.

that’s: What do you say to a city dweller who thinks he can’t make a difference?

JG: There isn’t an overall statement that you can make because each person responds slightly differently. You really have to treat people as individuals. But basically it’s not too difficult for people to understand that individual action, when multiplied by several million people, can make a change.

that’s: I want to talk a little about Africa and how the locals in Gombe [National Park in Tanzania], and elsewhere, receive your work. Has it significantly changed their way of thinking?

JG: Tanzania is not a part of Africa where chimps have been hunted; they have been rather respected. I think the local people, the villagers, have always been fascinated by what I do, and they have learnt a great deal more [about how] chimpanzees attract people to Tanzania. They understand that it’s good for them, their local economy. So they are a little more sophisticated. They welcome us being there because, in addition to studying chimpanzees, we have a program which improves the lives of villagers around Gombe.

that’s: You were chosen by Kofi Annan to be the United Nations Messenger of Peace.

JG: It’s an interesting concept: that we’ll never have total peace on this planet unless we can learn to live in harmony with the natural world. We will never learn to have harmony in the natural world until we alleviate the crippling poverty that people live under, until we manage to stabilize population growth, and stop fighting. You don’t stop fighting until you alleviate poverty and have a more manageable number of our species on the planet. It all ties in together.

that’s: How do you feel about your image being used in pop culture, like being parodied on The Simpsons cartoon, or featured in a theme ride at Disney World?

JG: Anything that gets the message out [is fine with me], anything which will get the message to people who would never come and hear my lectures, who wouldn’t read my books. You can’t imagine the number of people who have talked to me about [my character on The Simpsons]. It’s a way of getting into sections of society that I would otherwise never reach, which I think is so important.

that’s: Your name in Chinese is translated as “Zhen Gu Dao Er” or ‘珍古道尔’. ‘Zhen’ means ‘treasure’, and ‘Gu dao’ means ‘ancient truth’ or ‘ancient principle’. Does that relate to what some spiritual leaders have told you, that you have an ‘old soul’?

JG: We don’t even know that we have a soul. You can’t prove it, but I believe there is a spark of the divine in every living thing, not just people. We, with our passions and meaning and labeling things, we have called that spark of spirit a ‘soul’. I think that when people say that you have an ‘old soul’, it means you sort of understand certain native truths about how we ought to live on the planet, about the relationship we should have with nature and with each other. I think it brings perhaps a certain peace. I think somehow, if you have that aura of truth, people listen. If I have an old soul, then it’s been very helpful to me in the mission that I’ve been entrusted with.

that’s: Recently, when I was talking to a guy in a train station about how we all have choices to make and we all can make an impact. He said, ‘Well, every time you fly, it has a big environmental impact … .’

JG: Well, that’s absolutely true. If I stopped flying … I don’t know, the demand for me to go to places like Peru and India and Australia and New Zealand is so great. The impact of those visits is huge. [Those visits] have results in a big leap forward for R&S and lots of young people developing environmental responsibility. So I have to believe that the environmental impact of my visits is more than balanced [by the damage done by flying]. Roots & Shoots groups have planted millions of trees.

that’s: How many R&S groups are there world-wide?

JG: Around 8,500.

that’s: And how many volunteers?

JG: We have a brand new website that is going to make it possible to track [the numbers] and get a better idea [of the numbers]. At our schools the numbers range anywhere from two students to the entire [student body]. We reckon that on average, each group has 30 or 40 volunteers.

that’s: How do you stay grounded when you travel so much?

JG: I don’t know. I suppose it has something to do with that ‘old soul’. [I have a sense] of peace, and that’s the peace of the forest that I can carry within; it’s there inside me. I think I’m using my time in a productive way – a mixture of writing, of talking to children, and talking to policy makers, corporations and so forth. Because bodies age, there will come a time when I can’t rush around like this, 320 some days of the year. Or we won’t be flying because of terrorism. As it is, I shall carry on doing this kind of thing for as long as I can, or feel it sensible.

1 Response to “primal instincts: Jane Goodall on China”


  1. […] can read my interviews with Dr. Jane here and here. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Previous […]

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