Me Fred, You Jane

Fred Thompson, Jane Goodall Institute.

How do you convince someone who lives in the U.S. and has never seen a chimpanzee outside the zoo about the importance of saving natural habitat in a place they’ll probably never see?    — Name not provided

It’s true many people don’t “get it” and aren’t moved by the conservation arguments that we find so compelling — even the arguments that appeal to our self-interest. But you keep trying. You talk about the importance of rainforests not only for their aesthetic and spiritual value but because they are “nature’s pharmacy.” You talk about how much we still have to learn about chimpanzees and, by the way, did you know our study of Gombe chimpanzees is contributing to a greater understanding of AIDS and HIV?

More particularly, it’s my experience that even the most unconcerned individual feels some draw toward great apes. People just love to watch apes interacting, love to marvel at their similarities to humans, love to have their eyes opened even briefly to the complex and mysterious lives of our closest cousins. Great apes are wonderful ambassadors. That’s one reason why the research is so important.

Does the degree to which humans identify themselves as animals, and as part of nature, affect the degree to which we empathize and care for other animals? How can we foster that human-animal connection?    — Joe Harmon, Centerville, Ohio

Start with Jane Goodall. She showed us that the line separating human from nonhuman is not nearly as stark as some like to think. I would recommend any of her books, but especially In the Shadow of Man, which details her early life at Gombe including her discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools, and The Ten Trusts, which edifies even as it challenges us to reconsider our relationship to nonhuman animals.

Have you had the opportunity to spend much time around primates yourself? Has it made you think about the environment, or humanity, differently?    — Name not provided

I was at the institute for one month and was dispatched to our Congo sanctuary to intervene in a crisis. As soon as I arrived, I was introduced to two new orphans — a five-month-old gorilla and a six-month-old chimp. It was an amazing experience — truly moving. My time with chimpanzees has created a shift in the way I think about the natural world and animals. I understand on a more profound level the connection between “human” and “nonhuman.” Anyone who spends time with primates is going to conclude that they are extremely sentient beings with whom we share many traits.

Do people, such as members of JGI staff, live in the chimpanzee habitat areas of Gombe National Park in Tanzania? How does human interaction, and also human communicable disease, affect the chimpanzees?    — Name not provided

How we interact with the chimpanzees has evolved with our understanding of their susceptibility to human diseases and as the research project has grown. Early on, Jane fed the chimpanzees bananas, but this is now strictly prohibited. Our researchers still live inside Gombe, so they can find the chimps early in the morning and follow them all day. We have strict distance rules; no one can be closer than seven meters. Staff members practice a week’s quarantine if they have been away. Tourists are allowed in the park, but they cannot stay too long or visit in large numbers. We anticipate the park will set down even stricter guidelines in the future.

What are some of the most crucial questions that still need to be answered in the field of primatology, and what is the institute doing to answer them?    — Name not provided, Portland, Ore.

We’re pursuing many critical areas of inquiry at Gombe National Park.

  • Culture: How much do chimp populations differ in habits such as tool use or social signals? How are such behaviors passed on? A recent study at Gombe showed that young females learn tool-use skills differently from young males.
  • Importance of kinship — both maternal and paternal — in social behaviors such as cooperation and altruism: Can individuals identify their paternal relatives? Now that we use non-invasively collected DNA to determine paternity, we can explore whether fathers and offspring have special relationships and whether paternal kin avoid mating as do maternal kin.
  • How does isolation of populations affect behavior? We are studying the small Mitumba community, which is squashed into one valley by people on one side and the much larger Kasekela community on the other whose males invade and sometimes attack and kill infants and young males. Not surprisingly, it appears that competition among individuals is higher in this community.
  • How does habitat-change affect behavior? Through satellite-image studies, we know that vegetation cover has increased in the park over the last 40 years. Long-term records show that the chimps’ diet has likewise changed and that they have become more social, traveling and feeding in large sub-groups.
  • How does mothering style affect the success of infants? We are studying this question using the long-term Gombe data.
  • Disease: What effect does SIV (Simian immunodeficiency virus) have on chimps? Does studying the natural history of SIV help in understanding HIV? We are collaborating with Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama to improve our understanding of the evolution and transmission of SIVcpz (the chimpanzee strain).
  • Aggression: Put bluntly, we want to understand why chimps sometimes attack and kill each other. What factors are related? Our scientists have published several articles addressing this issue.

On our website you will find a reference list of the papers we’ve published on many of these subjects.

Do you have a secure area under your organization’s control to protect the habitat of the chimpanzees? What control measures do you currently have in place?    — Otto Martin, Seattle, Wash.

The only habitat that we control surrounds our Congo and Uganda sanctuaries, where we’ve been charged by the countries’ respective governments with protecting wildlife. We use fencing and eco-guards who patrol the perimeters and remove poachers’ snares. Gombe is under the control of the Tanzanian government, specifically TANAPA, or Tanzanian National Parks. But we do work with TANAPA to protect the chimpanzees in the park. In addition, in 1994 we established the TACARE project to address local human needs and reduce pressure on the forest.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?    — Name not provided

There are two that come to mind immediately. First, having the opportunity to work with someone as visionary and creative as Jane Goodall; it’s really a source of endless delight to watch her come up with so many creative perspectives on so many issues.

Secondly, and equally as important, is the satisfaction I get from knowing we are changing and improving lives in the areas where our programs are based.

Jane Goodall sounds like an amazing woman. Do you think your organization would be so successful had she not become somewhat of a celebrity for her chimp research?    — Name not provided

There’s no question Jane’s celebrity is a huge asset to our organization and to the cause of animals and the environment in general. She is a tireless advocate for the natural world and is often able to command attention to environmental issues where others can’t.

How much of the millions of dollars you raise each year goes to protecting natural habitat for the chimps? Have you considered working with other funding organizations, such as TANAPA, to fence off the remaining rainforest in Gombe?    — Name not provided

In 2003, 73 percent of our funds went to program costs and 27 percent to fund-raising and administrative costs. Of the $4.6 million we spent on programs, 21 percent went to wildlife research and 39 percent went to animal welfare and conservation. The other 40 percent went to education and communication, which means mostly our global Roots & Shoots program.

We work closely with TANAPA and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations in Tanzania and other countries. These partnerships are critical in leveraging program reach and effectiveness.

What are some of the most intense difficulties when dealing with the always-volatile governments of central Africa, and how do you get around them?    — Joe Kuhn, Santa Barbara, Calif.

We work at the grassroots level as much as possible, forming partnerships with communities and village leaders, so lack of continuity is not as big a factor. We are embarking on a new project with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to protect great apes and further sustainable development in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We chose them because they have strong partnerships on the ground. It will be an exciting project. Keep checking our website for more details.

Do you know any good books related to chimpanzee behavior or their relationship with humans?    — Name not provided

Anyone interested in chimpanzees should at the very least read Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man and its follow-up, Through a Window.

For children, there is My Life with the Chimpanzees and The Chimpanzees I Love, also by Jane.

I also loved Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin.