By DONNA URSCHEL
Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist, conservationist and humanitarian, looking youthful and vibrant at age 75, stood at the podium of the Coolidge Auditorium on Sept. 10 and told an overflow crowd of enthusiastic listeners, “We have made a horrible mess of this planet.”
The pronouncement was dire, indeed, but the theme of the lecture was one of hope and success. She discussed the inspiring stories of dedicated environmentalists, scientists and ordinary citizens who have—project by project—saved endangered species and improved habitats.
“In my work, I am meeting extraordinary people who fight for survival of our animals and planet. These are the stories I’ve collected in my book. It’s an unashamedly hopeful book that proves with the right determination and right passion, miracles can and do happen,” Goodall said.
More than 300 copies of her new book “Hope for Animals and Their Worlds: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink” sold out at the lecture, and more than 400 people lined up for the book-signing. Nearly 200 viewers had to be turned away from the Coolidge, as the 500-seat auditorium filled to capacity 20 minutes before the start of the lecture. The first in line turned up at 8:30 a.m. for the 11:30 a.m. lecture.
Goodall, whose work with wild chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, is known throughout the world, started her lecture with a recap of her breakthrough discoveries in the field. She learned that chimps use tools, are capable of compassion and of communicating with a rich repertoire of gestures and sounds. They engage in sophisticated cooperation during hunting and demonstrate intelligence. Human beings, Goodall said, can learn a lot about themselves through the study of chimps.
“We are not the only beings with personalities, rational thought and emotions. There is no sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is a very blurry line,” she said.
In man’s favor, of course, are a highly developed intellect and an extensive use of language. “Humans are the most intellectual being to walk the face of the planet. But, if that’s so, why are we destroying our home?” she asked.
There are, however, many quiet heroes who are accomplishing extraordinary things. Goodall discussed Don Merton in New Zealand and his efforts to save the black robin species from imminent extinction. The robins on Little Mangere Island had dwindled to seven. Of the seven, two were female and only one of the females, named Old Blue, was fertile. In normal circumstances, a black-robin pair rears no more than one brood of two chicks for the season. But if the eggs are taken, the mom and pop birds will build a new nest and produce another clutch.
Merton artificially extended the family of Old Blue by taking her eggs and placing them in a foster nest of another bird species. She and Old Yellow built another nest and produced more eggs. When the swiped eggs hatched in the surrogate nest, Merton returned the chicks to Old Blue to learn appropriate black-robin behavior. Old Blue appeared puzzled, but tolerant of the new arrivals. Through this process, the number of black robins grew from seven to 200.
Goodall also talked about field biologist Chris Lucash and his efforts to restore the red wolf in the United States. The red wolf population had dwindled to 14. Today there are 130 in the wild and 230 in captivity. Lucash was in the audience with his family, and Goodall called him onstage to howl like a red wolf.
“I’ve talked about a few of the charismatic species,” Goodall said. “But what about the people who work with bugs?”
Goodall discussed Lou Perrotti and his efforts to save the American burying beetle. A fascinating creature, the burying beetle buries its food, such as the carcass of a blue jay, and lays eggs near the buried food. Perrotti and his team have been successful with a captive breeding program, and by the end of 2006 they had reared and released more than 3,000 beetles into the wild on Nantucket Island.
Endangered species and habitats cannot be saved unless the people in surrounding communities are faring well, according to Goodall. In 1994, the Jane Goodall Institute initiated TACARE (take care), a program designed to improve the lives of people in poor areas near endangered chimp habitat—forests that were being cut down for cropland and firewood. Project manager George Strunden put together a team of local Tanzanians who visited the 12 villages closest to Gombe to discuss their problems. The villagers’ concerns were not conservation issues. They needed health care, clean water, food and education. Working with regional medical authorities, TACARE has introduced a new level of primary health care in the villages. TACARE is also developing ways to restore vitality to exhausted land and provide farming techniques for the degraded soil.
Goodall said in the process of helping villagers with farming, TACARE discovered “really good coffee” can grow in the high hills of Gombe. The villagers now plant new trees and produce 100 tons of coffee per year.
In an effort to engage youth, the Jane Goodall Institute in 1991 started Roots & Shoots, a global program that provides young people with a framework to organize projects in their neighborhoods and cities. The goal is to encourage young people to roll up their sleeves and undertake projects that will improve things for people, animals and the environment. Today, the program spans the globe, with branches in nearly 100 countries.
A question-and-answer session followed the lecture. Someone asked Goodall whether she thought creationism, along with evolution, should be taught in the classroom. She answered, “Well, to me it’s pretty clear we had an ape ancestor six million years ago. But never mind how we got here. The key is to focus on today—let’s work together and get out of the mess we’ve made.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.