ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44
Funday Times

Meeting Jane Goodall

By Smriti Daniel

"Gotta minute… err… nice chimpanzee, nice chimpanzee… you're a big fellow aren't you? Don't want to move? No problem, I'll just go around. See, see, I've got my hands where you can see them. No guns here, no sirree, no spears, no nothing. Just let me by now, good chimpanzee…"

Glootnoot knows she's squeaking, but can't seem to stop herself. She edges carefully around the biggest chimpanzee she's ever seen. She's terrified and is hoping that the person she's come to meet will just turn around and look. But Ms. Ranjini Gates is completely unaware, and seems deeply involved in some activity at the other end of the clearing.

Knowing her luck, Glootnoot thinks, she is about to become chimpanzee lunch. Frantically she tries to remember – are chimpanzees carnivores? Surely they're vegetarian! They like bananas! But they also eat termites, don't they? Don't termites count as meat? Glootnoot's heart is thumping so hard that it feels like it is about to burst out of her chest, jump down and run away.

Fortunately, the chimpanzee watches her warily, but doesn't move. He's obviously used to humans. Only when she is several feet away, does Gloonoot actually begin to breathe again. As she approaches, Ranjini turns around and gives her a friendly smile. Within moments, Glootnoot and Ranjini are heading towards the tent.

Glootnoot has found her way to the Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania, site of the longest-running field study of wild chimpanzees.

R: As you probably know Ms. Glootnoot, this centre is part of the Jane Goodall Institute. Jane herself drops in here often.

G: It must be very exciting for you working here. Jane pretty much is the biggest name in this field isn't she?
R: You're telling me! It's hard to overestimate how much Dr. Goodall has contributed to the field of primatology. I mean, she's it. Numero Uno – the number one specialist.

G: She's always been a very brave and unusual person, hasn't she?
R: She's both those things and more. I've heard that she wanted to come to Africa from the time she was 11 years old.

G: When did she actually manage it?
R: About 15 years later – when she was 26.

G: That's not all that young.
R: Not now maybe, but you have to understand that when Jane left England for East Africa, it was simply something that young women did not do. In fact, at first, British officials refused to let a young woman venture into the African jungle by herself.

G: What did Jane do?
R: She took along her mother, Vanne, for the first few months.
Ranjini reveals that when Jane first got to the Gombe National Park in the summer of 1960 she realised that observing chimpanzees was a difficult business. Very little was known about their behaviour, social structure or daily life, and they always ran away when Jane tried to get close.
R: But after a few months, the chimpanzees began to get used to having her around. Jane herself could identify them all – in fact she had given all the chimps names.

G: Was that unusual?
R: Yes, it was. You see, till then chimps and other animals were only given numbers for identification. Some researchers would later criticise Jane for this, but the public simply loved her methods.

G: I can imagine. X123 just doesn't have the same appeal as David Greybeard!
R: Ah, so you know about Jane’s first Chimp friend?

G: Yes, didn't he lift some bananas off Jane's camp table?
R: Yes, he was the first to come into the camp. Other chimps soon followed suit and Jane was able to begin observing them up close. What she saw would change primatology forever.

G: What exactly did she see?
Jane, it turns out, watched as two chimps stripped the leaves off twigs. These twigs were then poked into a termite nest – just as if the chimpanzees were fishing for food! It was the first glimpse of another creature – other than humans – making and using tools. Until that time scientists thought that one of things that set humans apart from animals was that we used tools. On hearing of Jane's observation, her mentor Louis Leakey said: "Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans."

G: Chimpanzees as humans? That sounds a little extreme.
R: Not really. If you've really looked at a chimpanzee, you'll see that they do look amazingly human. When Jane was in Gombe, she also discovered that – just like people – chimpanzees also had distinct personalities and emotions. Chimpanzees had lasting family relationships, and they even fought with each other!

G: As in beat each other up?
R: As in war. Jane actually saw chimpanzees engage in a primitive form of brutal warfare. In fact, the war went on for four years – the first record of long-term warfare in nonhuman primates! One group systematically attacked and killed all the members of another group.

G: Sounds disturbingly like something humans would do.
R: Chimpanzees and humans differ by just over one percent of DNA. In fact, biologically, chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas. Chimps can be taught to speak sign language, and have even learnt how to use computers!

G: Wow, I know a lot of people, big, adult people, who still haven't figured out how a computer works!
R: And that's not all. Not only are chimps really clever, they also seem to feel some of the same emotions we do and even express them in the same ways.

G: For example?
R: Well, chimps like to kiss and hug each other. They touch hands, pat each other on the back and even tickle each other! When they're in a bad mood, chimps have been know to shake their fists angrily, brandish sticks and even throw rocks.
Unfortunately, having so much in common with humans is not a fun thing for the average chimp, says Ranjini, explaining that because chimpanzees are so like us biologically, they can catch or be infected with all known human infectious diseases. This makes them ideal subjects for medical research. Glootnoot feels rather sad at the thought of Jane's chimps behind bars in some cold laboratory.
R: All over Africa these animals, like humans, need rescuing. Babies are sold as pets, or to biomedical research, or for entertainment. In nearby Burundi, because almost all the forests have been destroyed, only 4% of its chimps are left.

G: That's really sad.
R: Yes, it is. That's why Jane switched to being an advocate instead of a researcher. These days she spends a lot of time lecturing and inspiring people to make a difference in their world. Like I said, she's a simply amazing woman.
Glootnoot can't help but agree.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.