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Jane Goodall Is on a 'Mission to Save the World'

The legendary anthropologist and conservationist spoke to Radio Motherboard for the premiere of ‘Jane,’ a new documentary on her early career.
Jane Goodall and infant chimpanzee Flint reach out to touch each other's hands. Image: National Geographic Creative/ Hugo van Lawick

"World-famous scientist" is a rare title these days, reserved for only the most legendary living minds. Jane Goodall would undoubtedly fall under this category.

The 83-year-old anthropologist and conservationist spent the first 26 years of her career living among chimpanzees and exponentially expanding our knowledge of their behavior. By the 80s, the looming threat of habitat destruction inspired Goodall to leave the jungle and begin advocating for conservation full time. She hasn't stopped since.


"I think I was given a mission, and I feel something up there pushing me," Goodall told me during a recent interview in New York.

On the road an average of 300 days a year, Goodall was in town most recently to help promote the new film Jane, a documentary that features footage captured during her earliest expeditions in Gombe, Tanzania. I met with her and director Brett Morgen in a hotel room in Manhattan, where they were winding down from a day of back-to-back press engagements.

Jane, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, follows Goodall's early years as a young secretary-turned-scientist tasked with observing chimps in their natural habitat. The gorgeous footage was captured by Hugo van Lawick, a National Geographic wildlife videographer whom Goodall would go on to marry and raise a son (the couple divorced in 1974).

The previously unreleased footage is interlaced with current day interviews of Goodall, who reflects on her career and impact with the same warm humility she's always radiated.

"Everybody said I'd never do it, but not my mum," Goodall told me of launching her career in the jungle. "So I didn't care what anybody else said, and I knew I could do it. I watched animals all my life. I knew I was going to go to Africa and live with animals. I was right."

David Greybeard was the first chimp to lose his fear of Jane, eventually coming to her camp to steal bananas and allowing Jane to touch and groom him. Image: National Geographic Creative/ Hugo van Lawick

Along with the usual delight of a well-shot nature documentary, Morgen told me he hoped the film could hint at some deeper threads: the importance of women in STEM and the value of conservation.


"I didn't create the film to mobilize people, but I think it's an inevitable take away from the film," Morgen told me. "The film is moral and almost apolitical in that context. This is a moral issue, not a political issue that's on display."

Goodall herself is largely an apolitical figure, though she couldn't resist taking a few digs at President Donald Trump, including questioning whether he believes in evolution as all "rational people" do. But she told me there's been some good that's come out of the anti-science rhetoric of the current administration.

"One good thing Trump has done—one really good thing—is woken people out of their apathy," Goodall said. "Scientists, I don't think, ever before have left their ivory towers. Marched in the streets? Unheard of. But [under Trump] they have, so it's just a question of followup."

Goodall's plan for follow up: get the next generation on board. Roots and Shoots, her global conservation education program, aims to inspire youth to consider the impact their actions have and advocate for the care of the planet. It's a cause she's devoted herself to since she launched the program in 2002 and she references it often, eager to highlight the importance of passing on this knowledge to the next generation.

She told me she doesn't feel like she's completed her mission—to "save the world," in case you were wondering—not yet, but if Roots and Shoots continues after she's gone, she just might.

"Right now, it's tough, but if our youth loses hope then they'll do nothing and we might as well forget it," she said. "If you don't have hope, you do nothing."

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