Introducing children to world of chimps

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am

After spending most of her life studying chimpanzees in Africa, one of the world's best known authorities on primates has turned her attention to the children of Hong Kong and the mainland.

Dr Jane Goodall was in the city last week to promote the local branch of the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots and Shoots, a grass-roots programme aimed at young people.

At 76, she has a diminutive frame out of all proportion to the influence she has on those who meet her. As a young woman in Tanzania in the 1960s, she carried out groundbreaking research. She now spends about 300 days of the year travelling around the world to raise funds for the institute, which she established in 1977.

The institute continues to conduct research on chimpanzees in Tanzania, but it also establishes conservation and development programmes.

It's been 14 years since Goodall's first visit to the mainland, and she finds the changes remarkable.

'When I first went to China, it was the very first time that the newspapers were actually talking about environmental problems, and the reason was the serious floods in the mid-1990s,' she said.

'It was just the very beginning of a breakthrough where the government would actually admit that there were environmental problems and the awareness gradually grew.'

Back then, people were afraid to talk about environmental problems. There's definitely more freedom. It doesn't necessarily mean it leads to change but people are talking.'

On the mainland's reputation for its treatment of animals, Goodall said people in glass houses should not throw stones.

'A lot of people think people in China eat dogs and cats and have a culture of cruelty. Same with South Korea,' she said. 'In fact, if you look at Britain, which is supposed to be a country of animal lovers, what do we do? There's still a lot of dogfighting, there's massive pet cruelty and then if we think of the intensive farming, we're guilty of cruelty of a massive scale.'

In 1991, Goodall started the Roots and Shoots programme after a group of young Tanzanians told her they wanted to do more for the environment.

Roots and Shoots is now in 121 countries and the Hong Kong branch received a private grant of HK$1 million last year, allowing it to grow from 36 students in August 2009 to more than 1,500 students this year.

Goodall said the programme was about influencing the next generation in an important region of the world.

'China's such an economic powerhouse that it's important to have young people understanding that money isn't the be all and end all. That you need money to live but you shouldn't live for money.'

When she was just 26, Goodall went to live in what is now the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania after the famed paleontologist Louis Leakey asked her to study the behaviour of wild chimpanzees so he could better understand human evolution.

Goodall observed them making tools, hunting and eating other animals, and found that chimpanzees had distinct personalities and emotions. These discoveries rocked the scientific world, which had previously believed that humans were the only species to make tools and that chimpanzees were vegetarians.

Goodall celebrated the 50th anniversary of the start of her research two months ago with a visit to Gombe, but such trips are now rare because of her hectic schedule.

'My ideal life is not what I'm doing now,' she said. 'On the other hand, if somebody said I'm going to pay the institute so you don't have to go raise money, I still couldn't go back and live in Gombe as I used to because it's not just money that we're raising, it's awareness.'