The mood outside the Westin Hotel’s Grand Ballroom in Sydney was electric. Contagious even. Here stood 800 women (and a sprinkling of men) ready to meet Jane Goodall. It felt more like a rock concert rather than a sit-down breakfast.
That feeling didn’t stop with the attendees. Emcee Natarsha Belling couldn’t hide her excitement as she introduced the 83-year-old primatologist and activist.
Jane opened her keynote with an animal call, a good morning greeting in chimpanzee. We can confidently say this has never happened at a Business Chicks event before. It broke the ice immediately.
“I was born loving animals,” Jane began, telling the story of how her mother discovered her when she was just an 18-month-old toddler studying a pile of earthworms on her bed. Rather than getting furious about the dirt and mess like most mother’s probably would, Jane’s mother gently told the young Jane that “the worms need to return to the earth or they’ll die.”
At age four, Jane had what she called a defining moment in her life. At a farm holiday with her family, she was given the task of collecting eggs. Jane became fascinated with trying to understand how exactly a hen laid an egg. On the trail of something exciting, she went missing for four hours waiting inside a hen house for this to happen. Jane, excitedly ready to share her discovery, arrived back to the main house to discover her mother had called the police, fearing the worst. Rather than reacting with anger, and saying, ‘Don’t you dare do that ever again!’ Jane’s mother patiently sat down to hear the story about how a hen lays an egg.
“Support is so important in a mother. A different kind of mother might have crushed that curiosity. And I might not have ever done what I’ve done.”
Jane came of age during World War II. It was a time of air raids and food rations. She didn’t know it then, but a book was about to change the course of her life forever.
“I was ten years old when I found a small book in a second-hand bookshop. I still have it. I had just enough money to buy it. I took it home and read it from cover to cover. And that book was Tarzan of the Apes. Well, there was no tv back then, and I fell passionately in love with the lord of the jungle. And what did Tarzan do? He married the wrong Jane.”
“Of course I knew there wasn’t a Tarzan, but that’s when my dream began. I would grow up, move to Africa, live in the jungle with wild animals, and write books. That was my dream, but everybody laughed at me. “
“People said, ‘You’re just a girl. And girls don’t have opportunities like that.’ But not my mother, she said, ‘If you really want something, you have to work really hard, make the most of every opportunity and never give up.’ And that’s what I’ve been telling children ever since.”
Jane wouldn’t get to the jungle until she was 23. A friend’s parents had bought a farm in Kenya, and she saw this as her opportunity to set off on an amazing adventure. She moved home and worked as a waitress in Bournemouth in the south of England until she had enough money to sail to Africa.
Her first break came from an introduction to Louis Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist whose work was important in demonstrating that humans evolved in Africa. He saw her dedication and passion and gave her a job as his secretary. It was this introduction that led to her going into Gombe National Park in Tanzania to study chimpanzees.
Jane describes her time in Africa studying animal behaviour as the “best days of her life.” She went on to Cambridge University to get her Ph.D., so she could scientifically write her observations, and so her findings could be taken seriously. She stuck to her convictions at a time when university professors believed animals didn’t have personalities.
But it was a conference in the mid-1980s that shattered Jane. Here she learned about the deforestation, destruction, and commercial trade of chimpanzees for pets, meat, and medical research.
“I went to that conference as a scientist, and I left as an activist.”
“It was just something I knew I had to do.”
It was a flight over Gombe National Park and seeing the utter destruction surrounding the place she loved so dearly, that was the catalyst for what she did next. Jane set about saving those living in abject poverty on the fringes of the forest in Africa.
“I knew that if we didn’t do something to help the people, there is no way we can save the chimpanzees.”
The Jane Goodall Institute set up the TACARE or “Take Care” program in 1994. A community conservation program that foremost focused on the needs of the people in the villages surrounding Gombe. TACARE created better access to education, healthcare, and water management so that the community could live a sustainable life. And in turn, help them in their conservation efforts.
Jane credits the “micro-credit programs” she helped set up as one of her best inventions. Women and men in these villages could ask for money for their own eco projects. The flow on effects meant empowerment for women, girls stayed in school (no longer dropping out during puberty because of a lack of hygiene) and access to birth control meant that women could now plan their families.
“It worked as I hoped it would. The villages became our partners in conservation.”
“If you fly over Gombe today. There are no bare hills. The trees are coming back.”
Jane now travels around the world raising money and awareness. On her travels, she meets many young people who are angry and apathetic about the state of the planet, and the legacy they’ve been left from previous generations.
“We have compromised the future of our children. You may have heard the saying, ‘we haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed from our children.’”
“We haven’t borrowed. We have stolen, and we are still stealing.”
“As I’m travelling, I’m finding more and more about what we have done to this beautiful planet.”
But Jane doesn’t believe it’s too late to reverse the damage.
“Every single one of us makes a difference. Every single day.”
“Think of the small choices we make every day. What we eat. What we buy. What we wear. Where did it come from? Did it harm animals or the planet? Is child labour involved? Is that why it’s so cheap?
“Think about these consequences. Then we start to move to different sort of world. Then thousands, then millions, then billions of people all make ethical choices each day.”
Jane believes there is because there’s been a disconnect between “our clever brains and the heart.”
“We need to reconnect these because I truly believe that only when head and heart work in harmony can we achieve our true human potential.”
When asked about her age, and the world’s ageing population, Jane didn’t skip a beat.
“I don’t think about it,” she quips.
“I don’t think about ageing. I don’t have time to think about ageing. And the next thing will be death. And death is either the end of everything and so what? Or else it’s not, and that will be the greatest adventure. And I think there is something else.”
“I don’t look forward to the dying, but I’m not afraid of death.”
Jane ended her keynote with the below video, and just try to watch it without a lump in your throat and tearing up. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
But before you hit play, Jane wants you to know that this encounter was the first time she met Wounda. And a hint from Jane, “If you watch closely, you’ll notice a little kiss.”
During her keynote, Jane talked a lot about the indomitable spirit of both humans and animals. And as anyone who sat and listened to Jane talk about her extraordinary life knows, we just witnessed it first-hand.