Fifty Years at Gombe

In 1960 a spirited animal lover with no scientific training set up camp in Tanganyika’s Gombe Stream Game Reserve to observe chimpanzees. Today Jane Goodall’s name is synonymous with the protection of a beloved species. At Gombe—one of the longest, most detailed studies of any wild animal—revelations about chimps keep coming.

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.

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