This story appears in the October 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Most of us don’t enter upon our life’s destiny at any neatly discernible time. Jane Goodall did.
On the morning of July 14, 1960, she stepped onto a pebble beach along a remote stretch of the east shore of Lake Tanganyika. It was her first arrival at what was then called the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, a small protected area that had been established by the British colonial government back in 1943. She had brought a tent, a few tin plates, a cup without a handle, a shoddy pair of binoculars, an African cook named Dominic, and—as a companion, at the insistence of people who feared for her safety in the wilds of pre-independence Tanganyika—her mother. She had come to study chimpanzees. Or anyway, to try. Casual observers expected her to fail. One person, the paleontologist Louis Leakey, who had recruited her to the task up in Nairobi, believed she might succeed.
A group of local men, camped near their fishing nets along the beach, greeted the Goodall party and helped bring up the gear. Jane and her mother spent the afternoon putting their camp in order. Then, around 5 p.m., somebody reported having seen a chimpanzee. “So off we went,” Jane wrote later that night in her journal, “and there was the chimp.” She had gotten only a distant, indistinct glimpse. “It moved away as we drew level with the crowd of fishermen gazing at it, and, though we climbed the neighbouring slope, we didn’t see it again.” But she had noticed, and recorded, some bent branches flattened together in a nearby tree: a chimp nest. That datum, that first nest, was the starting point of what has become one of the most significant ongoing sagas in modern field biology: the continuous, minutely detailed, 50-year study, by Jane Goodall and others, of the behavior of the chimps of Gombe.
Science history, with the charm of a fairy-tale legend, records some of the high points and iconic details of that saga. Young Miss Goodall had no scientific credentials when she began, not even an undergraduate degree. She was a bright, motivated secretarial school graduate from England who had always loved animals and dreamed of studying them in Africa. She came from a family of strong women, little money, and absent men. During the early weeks at Gombe she struggled, groping for a methodology, losing time to a fever that was probably malaria, hiking many miles in the forested mountains, and glimpsing few chimpanzees, until an elderly male with grizzled chin whiskers extended to her a tentative, startling gesture of trust. She named the old chimp David Greybeard. Thanks partly to him, she made three observations that rattled the comfortable wisdoms of physical anthropology: meat eating by chimps (who had been presumed vegetarian), tool use by chimps (in the form of plant stems probed into termite mounds), and toolmaking (stripping leaves from stems), supposedly a unique trait of human premeditation. Each of those discoveries further narrowed the perceived gap of intelligence and culture between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes.
The toolmaking observation was the most epochal of the three, causing a furor within anthropological circles because “man the toolmaker” held sway as an almost canonical definition of our species. Louis Leakey, thrilled by Jane’s news, wrote to her: “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.” It was a memorable line, marking a very important new stage in thinking about human essence. Another interesting point to remember is that, paradigm shifting or not, all three of those most celebrated discoveries were made by Jane (everyone calls her Jane; there is no sensible way not to call her Jane) within her first four months in the field. She got off to a fast start. But the real measure of her work at Gombe can’t be taken with such a short ruler.
The great thing about Gombe is not that Jane Goodall “redefined” humankind but that she set a new standard, a very high standard, for behavioral study of apes in the wild, focusing on individual characteristics as well as collective patterns. She created a research program, a set of protocols and ethics, an intellectual momentum—she created, in fact, a relationship between the scientific world and one community of chimpanzees—that has grown far beyond what one woman could do. The Gombe project has enlarged in many dimensions, has endured crises, has evolved to serve purposes that neither she nor Louis Leakey foresaw, and has come to embrace methods (satellite mapping, endocrinology, molecular genetics) and address questions that carry far beyond the field of animal behavior. For instance, techniques of molecular analysis, applied to fecal and urine samples that can be gathered without need for capture and handling, reveal new insights about genetic relationships among the chimps and the presence of disease microbes in some of them. Still, a poignant irony that lies near the heart of this scientific triumph, on its golden anniversary, is that the more we learn about the chimps of Gombe, the more we have cause to worry for their continued survival.
Two revelations in particular have raised concern. One involves geography, the other involves disease. The world’s most beloved and well-studied population of chimpanzees is isolated on an island of habitat that’s too small for long-term viability. And now some of them seem to be dying from their version of AIDS.
The issue of how to study chimpanzees, and of what can be inferred from behavioral observations, has faced Jane Goodall since early in her career. It began coming into focus after her first field season, when Louis Leakey informed Jane of his next bright idea for shaping her life: He would get her into a Ph.D. program in ethology at Cambridge University.
This doctorate seemed a stretch on two counts. First, her lack of any undergraduate degree whatsoever. Second, she had always aspired to be a naturalist, or maybe a journalist, but the word “scientist” hadn’t figured in her dreaming. “I didn’t even know what ethology was,” she told me recently. “I had to wait quite a while before I realized it simply meant studying behavior.” Once enrolled at Cambridge, she found herself crosswise with departmental elders and the prevailing certitudes of the field. “It was a bit shocking to be told I’d done everything wrong. Everything.” By then she had 15 months of field data from Gombe, most of it gathered through patient observation of individuals she knew by monikers such as David Greybeard, Mike, Olly, and Fifi. Such personification didn’t play well at Cambridge; to impute individuality and emotion to nonhuman animals was anthropomorphism, not ethology. “Fortunately, I thought back to my first teacher, when I was a child, who taught me that that wasn’t true.” Her first teacher had been her dog, Rusty. “You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with any kind of animal with a reasonably well-developed brain and not realize that animals have personalities.” She pushed back against the prevailing view—one thing about gentle Jane, she always pushes back—and on February 9, 1966, she became Dr. Jane Goodall.
In 1968 the little game reserve underwent its own graduation, becoming Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. By then Jane was receiving research funding from the National Geographic Society. She was married and a mother and famous worldwide, owing in part to her articles for this magazine and her comely, forceful presence in a televised film, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees. She had institutionalized her field camp, in order to fund and perpetuate it, as the Gombe Stream Research Center (GSRC). In 1971 she published In the Shadow of Man, her account of the early Gombe studies and adventures, which became a best seller. Around the same time, she began hosting students and graduate researchers to help with chimp-data collection and other research at Gombe. Her influence on modern primatology, noisily bruited about by Leakey, is more quietly suggested by the long list of Gombe alums who have gone on to do important scientific work, including Richard Wrangham, Caroline Tutin, Craig Packer, Tim Clutton-Brock, Geza Teleki, William McGrew, Anthony Collins, Shadrack Kamenya, Jim Moore, and Anne Pusey. The last of those, Pusey, now professor and chair of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, also serves the Jane Goodall Institute (established in 1977) as director of its Center for Primate Studies. Among other duties, she curates the 22 file cabinets full of field data—the notebooks and journal pages and check sheets, some in English, some in Swahili—from 50 years of chimp study at Gombe.
That 50-year run suffered one traumatic interruption. On the night of May 19, 1975, three young Americans and a Dutch woman were kidnapped by rebel soldiers who had come across Lake Tanganyika from Zaire. The four hostages were eventually released, but it no longer seemed prudent for the Gombe Stream Research Center to welcome expatriate researchers and helpers—as Anthony Collins explained to me.
Collins was then a young British biologist with muttonchop sideburns and a strong interest in baboons, the other most conspicuous primate at Gombe. In addition to his baboon research, he has continued to play important administrative roles in the Jane Goodall Institute and at GSRC itself, off and on, for almost 40 years. He recalls May 19, 1975, as “the day the world changed, as far as Gombe was concerned.” Collins was absent that night but returned promptly to help cope with the aftermath. “It was not entirely bad,” he told me. The bad part was that foreign researchers could no longer work at Gombe; Jane herself couldn’t work there, not without a military escort, for some years. “The good thing about it was that the responsibility for data collection went straightaway, the following day, to the Tanzanian field staff.” Those Tanzanians had each received at least a year’s training in data collection but still functioned partly as trackers, helping locate the chimps, identifying plants, and making sure the mzungu (white) researchers got back to camp safely each night before dark. Then came the kidnapping, whereupon the Tanzanians stepped up, and “on that day the baton was passed to them,” Collins said. Only one day’s worth of data was missed. Today the chief of chimpanzee researchers at Gombe is Gabo Paulo, supervising the field observations and data gathering of Methodi Vyampi, Magombe Yahaya, Amri Yahaya, and 20 other Tanzanians.
Human conflicts overflowing from neighboring countries weren’t the only sort of tribulation that affected Gombe. Chimpanzee politics could also be violent. Beginning in 1974, the Kasekela community (the main focus of Gombe research) conducted a series of bloody raids against a smaller subgroup called Kahama. That period of aggression, known in Gombe annals as the Four Year War, led to the death of some individuals, the annihilation of the Kahama subgroup, and the annexation of its territory by Kasekela. Even within the Kasekela community, struggles among males for the alpha position are highly political and physical, while among females there have been cases of one mother killing a rival mother’s infant. “When I first started at Gombe,” Jane has written, “I thought the chimps were nicer than we are. But time has revealed that they are not. They can be just as awful.”
Gombe was never Eden. Disease intruded too. In 1966 came an outbreak of something virulent (probably polio, contracted from humans nearby), and six chimps died or disappeared. Six others were partially paralyzed. Two years later, David Greybeard and four others vanished while a respiratory bug (influenza? bacterial pneumonia?) swept through. Nine more chimps died in early 1987 from pneumonia. These episodes, reflecting the susceptibility of chimps to human-carried pathogens, help explain why scientists at Gombe are acutely concerned with the subject of infectious disease.
That concern has been heightened by landscape changes outside the park boundaries. Over the decades people in the surrounding villages have struggled to live ordinary lives—cutting firewood from the steep hillsides, planting crops on those slopes, burning the grassy and scrubby areas each dry season for fertilizing ash, having babies, and trying to feed them. By the early 1990s deforestation and erosion had made Gombe National Park an ecological island, surrounded by human impact on three sides and Lake Tanganyika on the fourth. Within that island lived no more than about a hundred chimpanzees. By all the standards of conservation biology, it wasn’t enough to constitute a viable population for the long term—not enough to ensure against negative effects of inbreeding, and not enough to stand steady against an epidemic caused by the next nasty bug, which might be more transmissible than polio, more lethal than flu. Something had to be done, Jane realized, besides continued study of a fondly regarded population of apes that might be doomed. Furthermore, something had to be done for the people as well as for the chimps.
In a nearby town she met a German-born agriculturist, George Strunden, and with his help created TACARE (originally the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education project), whose first effort, in 1995, established tree nurseries in 24 villages. The goals were to reverse the denudation of hillsides, to protect village watersheds, and maybe eventually to reconnect Gombe with outlying patches of forest (some of which also harbor chimpanzees) by helping the villagers plant trees. For instance, there’s a small population of chimps in a patch of forest called Kwitanga, about ten miles east of Gombe. To the southeast, about 50 miles, an ecosystem known as Masito-Ugalla supports more than 500 chimps. If either area could be linked to Gombe by reforested corridors, the chimps would benefit from increased gene flow and population size. Then again, they might be hurt by sharing diseases.
By any measure, it’s a near-impossible challenge. Proceeding carefully, patiently, Jane and her people have achieved some encouraging gains in the form of community cooperation, decreased burning, and natural forest regeneration.
On the second morning of my Gombe visit, along a trail not far above the house in which Jane has lived intermittently since the early 1970s, I encountered a group of chimpanzees. They were noodling their way cross slope on a relaxed search for breakfast, moving mostly on the ground, but occasionally up into a Vitex tree to eat the small purple-black berries, and were seemingly indifferent to my presence and that of the Tanzanian researchers. They included some individuals whose names, or at least their family histories, were familiar. Here was Gremlin (daughter of Melissa, a young female when Jane first arrived), Gremlin’s daughter Gaia (with a clinging infant), Gaia’s younger sister Golden, Pax (son of the notoriously cannibalistic Passion), and Fudge (son of Fanni, grandson of Fifi, great-grandson of Flo, the beloved, ugly-nosed matriarch famous from Jane’s early books). Here also was Titan, a very large male, 15 years old, and still rising toward his prime. The rules at Gombe National Park say that you must not approach closely to a chimpanzee, but the tricky thing on a given day is to keep the chimps from approaching closely to you. When Titan came striding up the trail, burly and confident, we all squeezed to the edge and let him swagger past, within inches. A lifetime of familiarity with innocuous human researchers, their notebooks, and their check sheets, has left him blasé.
Another reflection of casualness: Gremlin defecated on the trail not far from where we stood, and then Golden too relieved herself. Once they had ambled away, a researcher named Samson Shadrack Pindu pulled on yellow latex gloves and moved in. He crouched over Gremlin’s dollop of fibrous olive dung, using a small plastic scoop to transfer a bit into a specimen tube, which he labeled with time, date, location, and Gremlin’s name. The tube contained a stabilizing liquid called RNAlater, which preserves any RNA (from, for instance, a retrovirus) for later genetic analysis. That tube and others like it, representing one fecal sample every month from as many chimps as possible, were destined for the laboratory of Beatrice Hahn at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who for ten years has been studying simian immunodeficiency virus at Gombe.
Simian immunodeficiency virus in chimpanzees, known technically as SIVcpz, is the precursor and origin of HIV-1, the virus that accounts for most cases of AIDS around the world. (There is also an HIV-2.) Notwithstanding the name, SIVcpz had never been found to cause immune system failure in wild chimpanzees—until Hahn’s expertise in molecular genetics converged with the long-term observational data available at Gombe. In fact, SIVcpz was thought to be harmless in chimps, an assumption that raised questions about how or why it has visited such a lethal pandemic upon humans. Had a few, fateful mutations changed an innocuous chimp virus into a human killer? That line of thought had to be modified after publication of a 2009 paper in the journal Nature, with Brandon F. Keele (then at Hahn’s lab) as first author and Beatrice Hahn and Jane Goodall among the co-authors. The Keele paper reported that SIV-positive chimps at Gombe suffered between ten times and 16 times more risk of death at a given age than SIV-negative chimps. And three SIV-positive carcasses have been found, their tissues (based on lab work at the molecular level) showing signs of damage resembling AIDS. The implications are stark. An AIDS-like illness seems to be killing some of Gombe’s chimps.
Of all the bonds, shared features, and similarities that link our species with theirs, this revelation is perhaps the most troubling. “It’s very scary, knowing the chimps seem to be dying at a younger age,” Jane told me. “I mean, how long has it been there? Where does it come from? How is it affecting other populations?” For the sake of chimpanzee survival throughout Africa, those questions urgently need to be studied.
But this gloomy discovery also carries huge potential significance for AIDS research in humans. Anthony Collins pointed out that although SIV has been found elsewhere in chimp communities, “none of them is a study population habituated to human observers; and certainly none of them is one which has genealogical information going right back in time; and none is so tame that you can take samples from every individual every month.” After a moment, he added, “It’s very sad that the virus is here, but a lot of knowledge can come out of it. And understanding.”
The fancy new methods of molecular genetics bring more than just dire revelations about disease. They also bring the exciting, cheerful capacity to address certain long-standing mysteries about chimpanzee social dynamics and evolution. For instance: Who are the fathers at Gombe? Motherhood is obvious, and the intimate relations between mothers and infants have been well studied by Jane herself, Anne Pusey, and others. But because female chimps tend to mate promiscuously with many males, paternity has been far harder to determine. And the question of paternal identity relates to another question: How does male competition for status within the hierarchy—all that blustering effort expended to achieve and hold the rank of alpha—correlate with reproductive success? A young scientist named Emily Wroblewski, analyzing DNA from fecal samples gathered by the field team, has reached an answer. She found that the higher ranking males do succeed in fathering many chimps—but that some low-ranking males make out pretty well too. The strategy involves investing effort in a consortship—an exclusive period of spending time as a pair, traveling together, and mating—often with younger, less desirable females.
Jane herself had predicted this finding, from observational data, two decades earlier. “The male who successfully initiates and maintains a consortship with a fertile female,” she wrote, “probably has a better chance of fathering her child than he would in the group situation, even if he were alpha.”
Impelled by broader imperatives, Jane ended her career as a field biologist in 1986, just after publication of her great scientific book, The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Since then she has lived as an advocate, a traveling lecturer, a woman driven by a sense of public mission. What’s the mission? Her first cause, which arose from her years at Gombe, was improving the grim treatment inflicted on chimpanzees held in many medical research labs. Combining her toughness and moral outrage with her personal charm and willingness to interact graciously, she achieved some negotiated successes. She also founded sanctuaries for chimps who could be freed from captivity, including many orphaned by the bush-meat trade. That work led to her concerns about human conduct toward other species. She established a program called Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, encouraging young people around the world to become active in projects that promote greater concern for animals, the environment, and the human community. During this period she became an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. She now spends about 300 days a year on the road, giving countless interviews and schoolroom talks, lecturing in big venues, meeting with government officials, raising money to turn the wheels of the Jane Goodall Institute. Occasionally she sneaks away into a forest or onto a prairie, sometimes with a few friends, to watch chimps or sandhill cranes or black-footed ferrets and to restore her energy and sanity.
Fifty years ago Louis Leakey sent her to study chimpanzees because he thought their behavior might cast light on human ancestors, his chosen subject. Jane ignored that part of the mandate and studied chimps for their own sake, their own interest, their own value. While doing that, she created institutions and opportunities that have yielded richly in the work of other scientists, as well as a luminous personal example that has brought many young women and men into science and conservation. It’s important to remember that the meaning of Gombe, after half a century, is bigger than Jane Goodall’s life and work. But make no mistake: Her life and work have been very, very big.