Conservationist reveals burial plans, lifelong fascination with chimps
In Africa, it is a treasure to sit around the campfire and listen to elders teach through storytelling.That explains my excitement when I learnt of Jane Goodall’s tenth visit to Uganda and the fact that I could camp with her at Ngamba island chimpanzee sanctuary.
The British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace turns 80 on April 3. And since April last year, it has been daily birthdays for Goodall until April this year when the world will honour her as she also officially releases her last book, Seeds Of Hope.
For the two days she spent in Uganda recently, each day was celebrated with a cake. It started on Saturday with the first cake cut at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) offices, located a few metres before Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), Entebbe.
This, before we set off for Ngamba, located 23km southwest of Entebbe as part of the Koome group of islands in Lake Victoria, where another cake was cut on Sunday morning to the excitement of several tourists. On arrival at Ngamba, it was feeding time (2:30pm) for chimps. So, we headed straight for the exercise.
It was fascinating as a female chimpanzee called Ikuru bowed down as we stepped onto the viewing platform. Ikuru is one of the 47 orphaned chimps at the sanctuary. It was rescued by a UPDF soldier when its mother was killed in DR Congo. Calmly seated near the electric fence edge, Ikuru repeatedly bowed down as if to say: ‘You are welcome.’
Well, if only Ikuru knew who we had with us! But to Ikuru, it was just normal feeding hour that normally comes with visitors. She was soon joined by other chimps in clapping, before stretching out their hands asking for food. Goodall was quick to note that clapping is unnatural for chimps.
“That is human behaviour they learn as a way of finding means of communicating to us,” she said.
Goodall is a world-renowned conservationist and foremost expert on chimps; a woman who revolutionized our thinking about chimps by choosing to follow them for 50 years. She challenged long-standing scientific beliefs by breaking news in 1960 that not only humans could construct and use tools, but chimps too, and that chimpanzees are not vegetarians.
She came up with the idea of giving names to chimps. Before, scientists used to give them numbers. Born in the UK in 1934 to Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall, a businessman, and Margaret Myfanwe Joseph, a novelist who wrote under the name Vanne Morris-Goodall, Goodall’s love for chimpanzees started at an early stage when she was given a lifelike -stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee by her father; her fondness for the toy ignited her early love for animals.
Growing up, she dreamt of travelling to Africa to write about animals. But first she wanted to study sciences at university. Coming from a humble background, her family could not afford to send her to university, so she ended up doing a secretarial course.
In 1957, she was invited to Kenya by a friend, but she could not afford travel fees. It was then that she chose to work as a waitress in a hotel in England to raise her transport fare to Africa. In Nairobi, Goodall was introduced to Louis Leakey, the scientist whose fossil discoveries had finally proven mankind’s roots were African, not Asian, as previously supposed.
At this time, Leakey was looking for someone to study chimpanzees in the wild and to find evidence of shared ancestry between humans and the great apes. Previous studies of primates had been confined to captive animals but Leakey believed, presciently, that much more could be learnt by studying them in the wild. Goodall would make a perfect observer, he believed, coming – as she did – “with a mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory”, a point that is acknowledged by Goodall.
Equipped with nothing more than a notebook and a pair of binoculars, Goodall was off for Gombe in Tanzania to study chimps. Without collegiate training directing her research, Goodall was able to observe one chimpanzee feeding at a termite mound. She watched him repeatedly place stalks of grass into termite holes, then remove them from the hole covered with clinging termites, effectively “fishing” for termites.
The chimps would also take twigs from trees and strip off the leaves to make the twig more effective, a form of object modification which is the rudimentary beginnings of toolmaking.
Humans had long distinguished ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom as “Man the Toolmaker”. In response to Goodall’s revolutionary findings, Louis Leakey wrote: “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!”
Among her most memorable moments with chimps was when she was following David Greybeard, her favourite chimpanzee of all time–because it was the first chimp to feel comfortable around her. David became the first chimpanzee to take a banana from her hand, accepting an offering of friendship from a member of a different species.
“I had followed him deep into the forest. He stopped to rest, and as I sat near him, I saw a ripe palm nut and held it toward him on the palm of my hand. He turned his head away. I held my hand closer and then he turned back, looked directly into my eyes, took the nut, dropped it and very gently pressed my fingers with his in a gesture of reassurance,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2010.
“We each understood the other, bridging our two worlds, communicating with gestures that had probably been used by our common ancestor six million years ago.”
The worst moment was when the heaviest gorilla she has ever seen (weighing 130 pounds) stamped her and dragged her over a cliff. Lucky enough the cliff had no rocks; it was covered with vegetation, which Goodall says the gorilla was well aware of.
“They don’t punch us to kill us but to demonstrate to us that they are stronger,” she says.
Following her findings, she was able to secure funding from National Geographic Society who wanted photographic and film material. In 1962, she went to Cambridge University where she obtained a PhD in Ethology, becoming only the eighth person to be allowed to study for a PhD there without first obtaining a BA or B.Sc.
Following the 1975 kidnapping of some of her students by the Congolese government which jeopardized her funding, her friend started JGI in California in 1977 as a fundraising drive towards her cause. Today, JGI is in 28 countries, seven of which are African countries; Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, DRC, Congo Brazzaville, South Africa and Senegal.
Today, Goodall is a gracefully aged replica of the young woman who first set foot at Gombe decades ago. Her long, blond hair, tied back as usual, has turned silvery grey. However, it is surprising how much energy she exhibits.
That Saturday was an activity-packed day but Goodall never complained that she was tired. After the 2:30pm feeding, we were off to a nearby island to Myende fishing village where Ngamba sanctuary supports community projects like a primary school and water project. Later, we had a campfire until 10:30pm with Goodall demonstrating that she can go on and on. No wonder, she looks like a 50-year-old.
She actually acknowledges that if it wasn’t for her love for conservation, she would have died a long time ago. But she also notes that avoiding eating meat has worked miracles for her. Goodall tells The Observer that when she dies, she wants her body to be cremated and her ash divided and sent to the different countries where JGI is present.
Those countries can further divide the ashes and distribute to different communities to plant trees on her ash.
“It is a nice way because trees will celebrate [my] life,” she says.
Chimps are our closest living cousins with whom we share 98.7% genes. Like humans, they are highly intelligent, exhibit cleverness and are gifted in the art of bluff and intimidation.
Chimpanzees are totally dependent on the forest for survival, but man’s increased activities are having great impact on them. Today chimps that used to roam freely are found only in forest reserves and national parks, and it is estimated that about 200,000 chimps remain in Africa. Chimps are also traded as pets. Y
et chimps don’t make suitable pets for home because they grow to be large, powerful and wild animals. At some sites in Uganda, 25% of the adult chimps have snare injuries. In central and west Africa, chimp meat is a prized delicacy.
Ngamba island chimpanzee sanctuary is one of the 29 chimpanzee sanctuaries in Africa that provide orphaned chimpanzees with a secure home to live. The sanctuary aims to educate people about this remarkable species and the importance of conserving their fragile forest habitat.
You can visit this island which is only 23km away from Entebbe. You can take a speed boat at Waterfront beach in Entebbe. Feeding times from the visitor viewing platform are at 11am and 2:30pm.
You are advised to arrive at the island at least one hour before the feeding so that you listen to an informative talk by the sanctuary staff, enjoy the island’s beautiful views, natural wildlife, birdlife and activities such as volleyball, swimming in the lake and kayaking.
You can also decide to spend a night, staying in the sanctuary’s permanent tented camp overlooking the lake. This gives you chance to watch the chimps as they prepare their nests to sleep. The early mornings are particularly memorable as the chimps noisily wake up at sunrise, calling loudly to anyone who is listening.
Additional information from the Internet.