Jane Goodall: Championing animal conservation for six decades

National Geographic Explorer Jane Goodall has dedicated her life not just to chimpanzees but conservation, globally.

Jane Goodall is certainly a rarity among primatologists: She is a household name. For more than six decades, she has been the world’s preeminent primatologist and champion for animal conservation. 

But Goodall's path to success was atypical. In 1960, the year she began her now-famous study of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, primatology was an almost entirely male-dominated field. Moreover, Goodall had no university degree and no formal training as a scientist or primatologist. Instead, she had an abiding love of animals that had driven her, several years prior, to cold call Louis Leakey.

In 1957, Leakey, a paleoanthropologist who with his wife Mary was famed for uncovering evidence that the earliest humans lived in and migrated out of Africa, hired Goodall as a secretary. A few years later, after receiving a grant from the National Geographic Society, Goodall embarked on a mission to Gombe, where her work would remake our understanding of primates.

Goodall’s observations in Gombe were prolific, but one in particular shook the foundations of primatological and anthropological thought. While observing a chimpanzee, Goodall noticed him using pieces of grass to “fish” for termites while feeding. Up to this point, the scientific consensus was that tool-making separated humans from their primate cousins. Goodall’s observation upended that. Leakey himself wrote in response that “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human."

Goodall’s work in Gombe has never stopped. In fact, the Gombe Stream Research Center (GSRC), now run mostly by Tanzanians, is one of the longest field studies of an animal species in history.

While research at the GSRC continues, Goodall herself has since become engaged in a complementary effort: animal conservation. The Jane Goodall Institute, started in 1977, has worked for decades to secure the habitats of chimpanzees and other species. Goodall has become a global ambassador for conservation efforts.

In May 2021, Goodall was named the recipient of the prestigious lifetime achievement award, the Templeton Prize. The prize honors rare individuals who have responded to the deep challenges of our times with inspiring humility and curiosity.  

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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