Interview. ‘They’re just so used to pollution, they haven’t realized the joy of looking up at the sky with twinkling stars at night. And millions of them will not want to go back to the old environment that they grew up in.’

Jane Goodall: We can’t go back to business as usual

Jane Goodall, an English primatologist and anthropologist, is known worldwide for her groundbreaking work on chimpanzees, which has also redefined species conservation. In 1977, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute to support research in Gombe, Tanzania, and increase the protection of chimpanzees in their habitats. The images of a young Jane, in her habitat among the chimps in the forest, are unforgettable.

Jane continues to work and travel around the world, and today she spends this time of crisis in her childhood home in England. We talked with Goodall about her experience in Africa, the current situation in the nature parks, the trafficking of wild animals, the relationship of human beings with nature and how the coronavirus is changing the world, even for chimpanzees.

First of all, how are you?

Well, I think I’m doing a lot better than people in Italy who have been shut in for so long, but I’ve watched with great joy all the wonderful things like singing from the balconies, doing opera.

Do you think that we might be getting a small taste of what it’s like for chimps and gorillas to live in captivity?

Yes. I suspect that in many cases it’s probably a lot worse because at least people understand why it’s happening and expect that this will end, whereas the animals have no idea why they’re there. Obviously zoos are getting better and better and better and for some animals I think it’s an OK life, especially as they’ve never known anything different. But for an animal like an elephant, to be brought in from the wild, or a chimpanzee for that matter, and then confined without a really, really, really good environment, it must be absolutely terrible. Right? And, you know, we can amuse ourselves, we can find things to do. They have nothing.

What is the danger of coronavirus for chimps and other great apes? What is the situation like now in the parks in Africa, like in Gombe in Tanzania, where you spent so much time?

It’s very, very concerning because we know that the great apes and other primates too are very susceptible to these coronaviruses that cause respiratory diseases. We have sanctuaries for orphaned chimps and it’s sort of possible to try and protect them. We can take the right measures, and the public isn’t coming. But Gombe has open borders and there are people living all around. So we’re doing the best we can. We’re providing testing kits and masks and trying to educate the people [about the disease]. Hopefully they won’t be going into Gombe and certainly we’ve reduced our staff. There’s nobody much going into Gombe and those that are, are carefully tested and quarantined and then go out wearing masks, but they can’t do more than that.

I suppose the fact that parks are not accessible to the public at the moment is having an economic impact on ecotourism.

Yes, that’s another huge worry. And already we’ve had reports of poaching in some of the national parks. Rhinos, for example, six were killed in a week in South Africa. And a lot of rangers had to be laid off. And a lot of money is not coming in. And so we’re very afraid that poaching will go up in many of the parks. That isn’t the case at Gombe, but for some other places it will be and for many different species of animals. People are very poor and a lot of them, what else can they do?

So the increase in poaching is directly connected to the fact that the parks are closed to the public?

Yes. Because if the parks are closed and – I’m not talking about Gombe now – the rangers can’t be paid, they’re sent home. And so there’s nobody patrolling.

There’s been a lot of talk of the ban on trafficking of wild animals, especially now because of the wet markets in China and the risks that come from that. Do you think that a ban on trafficking could fuel the black market? I mean, what are the pros and cons to the ban?

Well, of course a profitable business can always go underground and a lot of the trafficking is illegal anyway. The trafficking in ivory and rhino horn has been illegal for years, but that doesn’t stop it becoming a multimillion dollar business. However, the banning on trafficking, along with China’s ban of the trading and selling of wild animals for food… we’re talking about the wildlife market and we have them in Africa too — the bushmeat markets, they’re the same thing — so if you have that ban in place, and people realize that this trafficking in the animals is bringing viruses into the country… Many, many human diseases come from viruses that have jumped from animals to people and the conditions in the wildlife meat markets and the trafficking, where very often animals are crammed close together… with these conditions the virus is likely to jump into people. We have to address all of it, plus destruction of the environment, which means animals get crowded together and sometimes you have animals moving [closer to people]. And again, there’s an environment where a virus can jump from an animal to a human and create a new disease.

Do you think that this pandemic is enough for the world to wake up and change course on how human beings interact with ecosystems? What is your view on this? Are you optimistic or not?

Well, my view is that millions of people will take this as a wake up call and start thinking in ways they haven’t thought before, especially the more they learn about the spillover effect. And by the way, we have to consider another environment that’s perfect for spillover. And that’s intensive farming of animals. Because many, many of these epidemics have started from intensive farming from pigs, chickens, horses, camels… But I’m afraid the trouble is that the kind of political leaders we have in place in many, many countries around the world, they’re just eager to go back to business as usual. That’s the problem.

So my hope is that the groundswell of citizens who, you know, many of them have never known what it’s like to live in a city with clean air. They’re just so used to pollution, they haven’t realized the joy of looking up at the sky with twinkling stars at night and millions of them will not want to go back to the old environment that they grew up in. But there’s got to be a groundswell so great that it can somehow overpower those in power right now… Especially young people are really changing, but we don’t know how much time we have because at the same time people are tending to forget the other great crisis, climate change. It’s all tied in with our disrespect of nature or disrespect of animals. We brought this on ourselves.

My next question is actually about the climate crisis. Are you worried that the pandemic will take efforts and money away from fighting climate change?

Well climate change is driven a great deal by the big corporations and the lack of legislation to prevent emissions. And I don’t think that this pandemic is going to affect that very much, except to make them more eager to get back to doing what they were doing. So on the one hand, yes, millions of people have seen this as a wake up call or a time when we’ve got to rethink our relationship with the natural world to realize we depend on the natural world, but on the other hand the leaders in business and government… that’s the big problem, isn’t it? And, in fact, the Trump administration has wound back all the environmental protections that had been put in place, one by one.

We take one step forward and 10 steps back.

Yes. Somehow there should be a global legislation about climate because what happens in one country affects the countries on the other side of the world. And, you know, people say this pandemic is a leveler. It’s not a leveler. In the Western world and the affluent communities they can afford good healthcare facilities. Although in America they weren’t prepared. They didn’t have enough ventilators, they didn’t have enough masks, and they didn’t have enough testing kits, whereas in countries like Taiwan and South Korea, which have been through this before, they were ready. So they managed to bring it under control relatively quickly. But anyway, in places like the townships in South Africa, when the country goes into lock down, what happens to them? You get rioting and that has happened in South Africa.

And other countries in Africa, too.

Yes. I’m in my home in England where I grew up. I know how lucky I am with the garden… and we can still get out once a day with the dog, but then you think of being told to lock down in a room with six people and no garden. It’s not a leveler at all.

And it’s like climate change, isn’t it? It’s going to affect the most vulnerable and the poorest most intensely first.

Yes, exactly. And people say, close down the wildlife markets in China. Well, yes, we must. We have to. But there are thousands of people in the rural areas who depend on farming wildlife for meat. So you know, they need an alternative way of living.

You’ve spent so much time with chimpanzees in the wild. What do you think we can learn from how chimps live and interact with each other?

They do not overpopulate the environment; the females only have a baby every, usually five years, occasionally four. The more food they get, the more they reproduce. And the people living in the forest, the indigenous people, they don’t overpopulate either. That’s one of our big problems isn’t it? So if you take poverty on the one hand and unsustainable lifestyles on other people and human population growth, those are big battles we have to fight. Hopefully this lockdown will make people stop and think more holistically and globally. How should we actually be living?

What would you say to someone who says it’s too late to change the course of things?

Well, I always say it’s not too late yet. If we can just get enough people to understand… Our youth program was in 65 countries: It began in ’91 and so many of our original members are in higher positions in government and law, and they seem to retain the values that they somehow got in our youth program Roots & Shoots because the main message is that every individual makes a difference every day. And when billions of people make ethical choices in what they buy, eat or even how they interact with each other and the environment, that’s moving towards a better world. Even in the poorest communities it’s giving… And I guess because I lived through World War II, and I was in New York at 9/11 and I’ve been in African countries with people being shot, and we live, we survive. We look through it all and some lessons are learned. So maybe this time, perhaps the human race is older and a little bit wiser and we’ll pay heed to nature.

You mentioned the war. Many people are comparing this pandemic to war. What do you think about this comparison?

Well, [during the war] I was in England and we were in direct firing line with Germany. They were bombing us and food was rationed, clothes were rationed, petrol was rationed. Everything was rationed. So one good thing we learned from that was not to take anything for granted. And I think this pandemic is also teaching that lesson. Don’t take your health for granted, don’t take your liberty for granted, don’t take business as usual for granted. Things can change. But also, you know, the spirit of community was very evident in World War II. You know, we had Winston Churchill and it was his voice, his messages over the radio. But I think, otherwise, we would have been overrun by Germany, quite honestly. I really do.

So is this the importance of leaders?

Yes, just giving people stamina. Like, ‘you’re not going to take this lying down…’ ‘We will make a difference…’ ‘We will not let it happen again.’ And also try and get some of these obstinate people who put their heads in the sand and say, ‘Oh well, you know, we can go on extracting oil. It will go on forever and ever.’ How do we wake them up? Maybe they have children, maybe they’ve never really thought about the fact that if they go on doing what they’re doing, their own children will suffer.

And maybe this epidemic, this pandemic will help people think about the future of their children in a different way… also some of them are locked in with their children so they’ll either get increasingly irritated or increasingly loving [laughs]. But, we have to do all these separate things. Some will work on getting people to understand animals better. Others will work on trying to convince those ostriches with their heads in the sand, thinking only of themselves. People like you telling stories, telling things as they are, that’s incredibly important at a time like this. And the more stories we tell, the better.

And I think that yes, we have to know the bad news. Definitely. We need to see pictures of animals cramped in these wildlife meat markets, which is awful. But I think the other side of it is showing people something different… I’m putting together a whole series, particularly for children, showing not the gruesomeness but how amazing animals are. Those kinds of things stick with people.

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