Primatologist Jane Goodall hopeful Earth and its wildlife can be saved

Primate expert Jane Goodall, who has spent nearly six decades raising awareness about conservation, is hopeful Earth and its wildlife can be saved

Dr Jane Goodall has been travelling the world since 1986 and, at the age of 83, the world-renowned primate expert has no intention of slowing down.

Since January, she has flown to Australia, Tanzania, Germany, Switzerland, North and South America, Abu Dhabi and South Korea, raising awareness and funds for conservation issues affecting animals and humans.

She was in Singapore recently on a three-day visit to mark the 10th anniversary of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), the local chapter of the environmental group she founded.

Living among the wildlife in Africa was her childhood dream.

As an eight-year-old growing up in Bournemouth, England, she was inspired by the Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan stories she read. Tarzan, she concluded at the time, had "married the wrong Jane".

At 23, Dr Goodall, who had trained as a secretary, set sail on a three- week journey to Kenya at the invitation of a family friend who had moved there.

She called and arranged to meet renowned palaeontologist Louis Leakey, who hired her as a secretary for the national history museum in Nairobi, where he worked as a curator. He later sent her to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in what is now Tanzania, at the age of 26 to do research on apes.

Dr Jane Goodall in her younger days (above) and with a chimpanzee called Flint at Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania in 1964. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE JANE GOODALL INSTITUTE

At Gombe Stream National Park, Dr Goodall, who did not have a university degree yet, discovered that chimpanzees used and made tools.

How can I? I was given two gifts. One was a healthy body and the other was the gift of communication and, while I can, I’m going to use them.

DR JANE GOODALL, 83, on how retirement is not on the cards for her

Her groundbreaking findings shook the scientific world, which had until then believed that man was the only creature who used tools.

National Geographic, the magazine of the National Geographic Society, sent a photographer, Hugo van Lawick, to document her research.

He became her first husband and his pictures launched her rise as a conservation star, which enabled her to found, in 1977, the Jane Goodall Institute, whose projects worldwide include research, public education and advocacy.

It runs a youth-oriented, international environmental programme called Roots & Shoots, which also has a branch in Singapore.

She has received numerous honours. She is a Dame of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knight, as well as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

In 1986, she realised at a scientific conference that forests were being destroyed, along with wildlife and human livelihoods. "I went to that conference as a scientist. I left as an activist," she says.

Having embarked since then on a lecture tour that sees her travelling up to 300 days a year, she says she is recognised in "every single airport" and is the target of well-wishers and autograph- and wefie-seekers.

Some fans do not get what they expect, however. Displaying a sly wit, she recounts an incident where an air stewardess politely waited till the end of the flight before approaching her, confusing her with another famous female naturalist.

"She said, 'It's been wonderful to have you on board, Ms Fossey.' I smiled at her and said thank you. She probably went to somebody and said, 'Guess who I met?', and they could say, 'But she's dead.' I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall," Dr Goodall says.

"People say to me, 'Oh, I loved your movie Gorillas In The Mist', and I say, 'But that woman died in the film', and they say, 'Yes, I know.'"

The life of Dian Fossey, who researched gorillas, was the subject of Gorillas In The Mist (1988), which starred actress Sigourney Weaver. Dr Goodall, who recalls Fossey as being "very difficult, very opinionated", was sometimes grouped together with Fossey and another woman scientist, Birute Galdikas, who studied orang utans.

Dubbed the Trimates, the trio were mentored by the late Leakey, who believed that studying the great apes would lead to a better understanding of early hominids and other ancient apes.

In person, while Dr Goodall is as gentle and wise as expected, she has a pin-sharp savvy about her image as a kind of secular saint of conservation.

"There are two Janes. There's the real me and then there's the icon created by the Geographic and the media and I have to try and live up to that one," she says.

"As that icon has been created, I must use it to its full advantage so I spread the word with each person who comes up to me."

Who, then, is the real Jane? I ask.

"You're talking to her. The questions you've asked, the answers are the real Jane," she says.

She is candid about her relationship with the press. "I need the media. I can't get on without the media. It is one of the most important aspects (in raising awareness about conservation). It doesn't mean I like being interviewed."

She takes a poor view of climate- change deniers, describing them as "quite stupid".

"They'll say, 'Oh, we do agree the climate's changing, but it's not to do with human activity.' That's what Trump is saying now. He's ignoring all the science on greenhouse gases," she says of the United States President.

She has always been unafraid to speak her mind.

Back in the 1960s, Leakey secured funds for her to pursue a doctorate in ethology, the science of animal behaviour, at the University of Cambridge. She had been only to secretarial school and was the rare student admitted to the Cambridge programme without an undergraduate degree, after she became known for her Gombe research.

Even with scientific training, she faced scorn from academics.

She was almost expelled from Cambridge for writing her first book - My Friends, The Wild Chimpanzees - with National Geographic funding, as it was not done to write popular books about science. She was also criticised for naming the chimps she studied, instead of using numbers as was the convention then.

She holds to the views she held then, saying that names help in raising awareness about wildlife.

Referring to a 2015 animal killing that sparked an international response, she says: "When that hunter shot Cecil the Lion, that became a global concern because he had a name. The same lion who wasn't named, he would have just been one more big-game trophy."

Looking back at her body of work, which includes more than 20 books on conservation as well as children's books, she is most proud of her research documenting how one chimp, which she named David Greybeard, used stems of grass, or stripped twigs of leaves, to "fish" for termites from a mound of dirt.

It paved the way, she says, for scientists to recognise the use of tools in other animals such as elephants, octopi and even bees, which have been observed to learn, from one another, how to roll little balls in order to get a nectar treat.

She acknowledges, however, that some mistakes were made. For example, feeding stations were used to get photos of her interactions with chimps, a practice that some scientists said modified the behaviour of the chimps in the wild.

"It was actually not a good thing to do. But when we did it, it was when Hugo came out, sent by the Geographic, and if we hadn't done it, he wouldn't have got the footage he got and that would have been the end of the Geographic's involvement, so it was actually a good mistake," she says, adding that they soon stopped the practice.

She made other discoveries about chimps, such as that they ate small amounts of meat, when they were previously thought to be vegetarian.

There were other, darker aspects to the chimps, which share more than 95 per cent of their DNA with humans. She observed cannibalism, when some females ate the offspring of others, as well as a four- year "war" between factions in the chimpanzee community at Gombe, the research station that has now studied chimps for more than 50 years.

"At the beginning, I had no preconceived idea at all. Then when I got to know them, I thought they were like us, but nicer. Then I realised, no, they're like us," she says.

In 1900, there were an estimated one million chimpanzees in the wild. Current estimates range from about 150,000 to 250,000.

She remains hopeful that the planet and its wildlife can be saved.

"If we lose hope, we might as well all give up. I truly and honestly think maybe we have a window of time to turn things around."

Retirement is not an option for her. "How can I? I was given two gifts. One was a healthy body and the other was the gift of communication and, while I can, I'm going to use them."

She says she wrote her first story at age five, about a giraffe whose neck stretched to the moon, which her mother, Ms Vanne Morris- Goodall, typed up for her.

Her parents divorced when she was 12 and she credits her mother with being her champion and "boosting her morale" since she was a child.

"The most important thing for a mother is to support her child's dreams. It doesn't mean you just support everything. You have to point out the pitfalls," says Dr Goodall, who has a son and three grandchildren.

When she was nearly five, she holed up in a henhouse for four hours because she wanted to find out how hens laid eggs. The police were called, but her mother was not angry when she finally emerged, listening patiently as the child talked excitedly about egg-laying.

Her adventurous spirit has never left her and she calls death "an adventure". "Because it's either nothing, in which case that's it, or it's something, in which case it will be very exciting to find out, won't it?" she says.

Her schedule means that she is never anywhere for longer than three weeks at a time.

She says she "didn't have time" to remarry after her second husband, Mr Derek Bryceson, a national park director and parliamentarian in Tanzania, died of cancer while she was in her 40s.

She returns to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and Bournemouth in Britain, where she has homes, only a few times a year. She misses "the magic, the rich tapestry of life" of the forest.

"When I'm at home in Bournemouth, there's always a dog and I go for a walk. I just snatch what moments I can to relax; I might simply look at a tree. I'm very good at being in the moment."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline 'Wild at heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe