55 years ago, Jane Goodall arrived in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Although she was young and inexperienced, one anthropologist had recognized her determination to learn about the natural world: Louis Leakey. She had first worked for him as his secretary in Kenya, until Leakey gathered enough funds to send her to Gombe to study primate behavior. This year, we celebrate Jane’s arrival as the start of a legacy: a commitment to primate research, conservation, and development for the human populations surrounding Gombe.
The early days at Gombe
The legacy began with a girl, her mother, a notebook, and some binoculars. Jane’s strategy for observing chimpanzees was one of determination and patience. It would be months before the chimps allowed Jane to get close enough to observe them. The first to accept her as a group member was an older male she named David Greybeard. David would be the first chimpanzee Jane observed using tools when he used a piece of grass to lure termites out of their hole. This discovery prompted Leakey to call for the redefinition of “man”.
Changing the world’s idea of chimps
Jane made many other discoveries as well. By observing the chimps over many months, she began to realize that they had unique personalities and displayed a wide range of emotions. They were capable of reasoned thought and generalization, and even had a concept of self. Jane once said of David, “His personality was very calm. Very determined. When he was determined, his lower lip came out.” She learned that chimpanzees have a wide diet, including meat, which disproved the popular belief that they were vegetarians. Finally, Jane reported on their aggressive side, observing warfare, violence, and even instances of cannibalism.
The research continues
Jane established the Gombe Stream Research Center in 1967 so that the research she started could be continued. Today, the researchers still follow the same families of chimpanzees that Jane interacted with upon her arrival in Gombe. The researchers study social patterns, disease, relationship structures, and many other aspects of chimpanzee nature. While some researchers have worked at Gombe for many years, an influx of students from all over the world provide fresh perspectives on the research. Researchers record their findings on check sheets and in blogs published online.
Threats to chimpanzees
Today, deforestation and overpopulation by humans are destroying the chimpanzees’ habitat. The number of chimps in Gombe has decreased dramatically since the 1960s, and now they are an endangered species. Many things indirectly affect the chimpanzees’ survival, including agricultural practices that strip the land and poor land management. Poachers also target them directly to sell as bush meat and as illegal exotic pets. Chimps are also affected by simian versions of ebola and immunodeficiency viruses.
What can we do to help?
The Jane Goodall Institute works to conserve the chimps and their habitat by providing action plans, increasing law enforcement, managing protected areas, removing snares, and promoting ecotourism, among many other things. For example, the Tanzania REDD program trains local communities to manage and monitor the forests in the Gombe region. In the Republic of the Congo, the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center works to care for and rehabilitate orphan chimps. These are just two of the many programs established by the Jane Goodall Institute that work toward chimpanzee conservation. By celebrating 55 years of Gombe, we hope to continue these efforts, so that we may strengthen Jane’s legacy.
(Text by Kelsey Frenkiel)