It was in 2006 that I first met the revered conservationist Jane Goodall. about 100 of us, stacked in bleachers in the gym at Hong Kong International School, marvelled as the high-pitched shooting of a chimpanzee reverberated around the walls. The infectious sound, however, was not emanating from one of humankind’s closest cousins, but from the frail-looking, silver-haired woman before us, who was demonstrating how chimps greet each other in the morning.
My 16-year-old self-had never heard of Goodall, renowned around the world for her work with primates, a dame of the British empire and a united nations Messenger of Peace. But I was fascinated, and hearing her story changed my life.
almost from the moment of her birth in London in 1934, Goodall was obsessed with animals, dreaming of going to Africa like “the other Jane,” as she refers to the character in Tarzan of the Apes. after finishing school and unable to afford university, she started working as a secretary. When a childhood friend invited her to visit her family’s farm in Kenya, Goodall moved back home to save money for the boat fare.
In 1957, at the age of 23, Goodall left for Kenya equipped with an insatiable curiosity and unrelenting drive. Soon after arriving, she met Louis leakey, whose work was instrumental in establishing that Africa was the cradle of humankind. The paleoanthropologist was so impressed by her attitude and knowledge about Africa that he hired her as his assistant.
With leakey to Tanzania on a fossil hunting expedition, and then she began studying chimpanzees, about which little was known at the time. The primates would run away screaming whenever Goodall approached. But as she persevered, spending more and more time with them alone in the forest, with her binoculars, notebook, pen and a handful of nuts in her pocket for sustenance, they became accustomed to her and she was able to observe their behaviour at close quarters.
She soon made important discoveries. In October 1960, she witnessed the chimps hunting and eating bush pigs, overturning the belief that they were vegetarian. a few days later she saw two males carefully select small twigs, strip them of leaves and use them to “fish” insects out of a termite mound and into their mouths—making and using a tool. This revelation made international headlines. It was thought at the time that what defined us as human was the fact that we made tools, and leakey famously proclaimed, “now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
later Goodall found chimpanzees are humanlike in ways we’d perhaps rather not admit: they have belligerent tendencies, engaging in brutal, murderous warfare in inter-group conflicts that can last for years.
Goodall’s work, however, created controversy. Some scientists derided her and accused her of using improper practices, such as attracting chimps with feeding stations, assigning them names instead of numbers, and describing them as having distinct personalities and feelings. nevertheless, and despite her lack of a degree, she was accepted as a PhD candidate by Cambridge university in 1962 and earned her doctorate in 1965.
after a further decade of valuable research and driven by a fear that her beloved chimpanzees could face extinction, the primatologist founded the non-profit Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to improve global understanding and treatment of the great apes. and in 1991 she cofounded Roots & Shoots, a global environmental and humanitarian education programme for youth that has chapters in 134 countries, including several in Hong Kong. now 82, the tireless Goodall travels for some 300 days a year to spread her message.
Like Goodall, I’ve always had an adventurous streak and a love for nature. That love blossomed as I observed the snails and ants in the backyard of my early childhood home in Canada, and it inexplicably survived through years of living in the crowded districts of Mong Kok and ap lei Chau in Hong Kong. I wanted to become a forest ranger, then a marine biologist. But sadly, as they often do, my dreams fell by the wayside, perhaps because of a lack of role models; no one I knew in Hong Kong had pursued such a career.
as my graduation from university approached in 2012, I recalled Goodall’s words from back in school and how they sparked something in me—the realisation that anything is possible. I still hoped to end up like Goodall, studying animals deep in the jungles of Africa, but I wasn’t doing anything to fulfil that dream. It struck me that if she could study chimpanzees in 1960 with little means and no tertiary education, I had no excuse. So I recommitted myself to my dream, applying for every entry-level job related to primatology that I could find.
Eventually, I landed a position as a research assistant for a gorilla conservation programme in the Central African Republic. Suddenly I was living my dream amid extraordinary biodiversity in a remote part of the beautiful country, but I had to leave six months later as civil war spread through the troubled nation. Six weeks after I was evacuated, poachers raided the project site and killed 26 elephants for their ivory, which could very well have been destined for Hong Kong, the largest ivory market in the world.
I became acutely aware of the impact my own city was having on wildlife halfway around the world, where demand for ivory, largely fuelled by China’s voracious appetite, was decimating elephant populations and funding terrorism. I became involved in the making of a documentary about the illegal ivory trade, for which I posed as a buyer at an ivory market in the democratic Republic of Congo. This project led to my second meeting with Goodall, six years after her HKIS visit, this time at her assistant’s house in London. a staunch advocate for the protection of elephants, she had agreed to be interviewed for the documentary.
I was so nervous that my hands were shaking. I wasn’t prepared for how approachable and down-to earth she was. She asked me to help her fasten her necklace. Soon I found myself sitting next to her on a couch, sipping tea, as she played a video on her laptop showing a rescued chimpanzee hugging her after it was released into a sanctuary. after the interview, Goodall and I continued to chat. To my surprise, she asked if I would be an ambassador for the Jane Goodall Institute in Hong Kong, and she gave me a bracelet from Africa as my official “knighting.”
Recently I spoke with Goodall via Skype about wildlife conservation in Asia, her coming visit to Hong Kong and the fundraising gala the institute is organising in her honour. It can be difficult to remain positive in the face of the environmental challenges threatening the world, but this conversation with my role model was a welcome breath of fresh hope. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
(Text by Laurel Chor, Image courtesy by the Jane Goodall Institute; Michael Neugebauer; Chase Pickering; Hugo Van Lawick; courtesy the Goodall Family)