JANE GOODALL’s Singapore Botanical Gardens Talk: A Message of Hope
Yesterday was definitely one of the highlights in my life- to spend a few hours in the company of one of the most dignified, discerning, compassionate and empowering persons in the world. What a privilege it was to have had, Dr. Jane Goodall, renowed primatologist and conservationist share her message of hope to the staff and volunteers of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.
Chimps and we are alike
Jane greeted us with her inimitable “hello” in chimp tongue, an “ooh-ooh-ooh” note in a crescendo-like fashion. Her research at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, dating back to 1960, is undoubtedly the longest unbroken study of any wild animal. Though we belong to the great ape family of orangutans and gorillas, genetically we have more in common with the chimpanzee, with only over 1% difference in the DNA, which is why chimps are used in medical research.
The similarity extends to our immune systems, common anatomical structure of our brains, social behaviour – especially the kind of close bonding that we develop between mother and child, and between siblings, and sophisticated co-operation in hunting and sharing the kill. Chimps make and use tools- a skill that before Jane had made her discoveries known to the world, supposedly made us “superior” to animals. Animals have more complex brains than we can comprehend, and as we learn more and more about them, the line between us humans and animals gets “blurry” all the time.
What makes us different?
Humans are obviously different as our intellect, amongst all species has grown in an explosive way. We have a sophisticated language that helps us describe events and places which we are not physically present in. We have an oral history. We can discuss the past. We can discuss the future, and make amazing decisions and find solutions to problems in complex ways.
However, we are also destroying the only home we have, our planet. We are busy creating problems, destroying land, polluting our rivers, cutting down our forests, and pumping carbon dioxide into the air. Jane sees the air of pessimism amongst people all over the world, particularly biologists who can see the impact of environmental destruction everyday in their line of work. But we can take a step at a time, make choices about what we buy and wear and eat, how we go from A to B. We can become aware of how our choices affect the environment and animal welfare. Billions of small steps can lead to big changes.
We can’t give up hope, because if we did, we would stop even trying to find solutions.
TACARE- The Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education Project
In 1991, when Jane flew over the 30 square mile Gombe National Park, home to the now world famous chimpanzees that she has been studying for decades, she was shocked to see the extent of deforestation on the fringes of the forest. The soil fertility was down due to overfarming, and people were suffering due to overpopulation and lack of food.
The question that came to Jane’s mind was, “How can we try to save chimps when people are struggling to survive?”
The starting point was to do it the African way : sitting down and talking to the elders of 24 villages surrounding Gombe, and asking them how they would address the problems, and how they could improve the situation. What evolved was TACARE, a holistic way to reforest the slopes surrounding Gombe and sustainably develop the community, agriculture, health, water, and the use of natural resources.
That meant replanting trees and not hacking at the stumps. Woodlots were made to grow in the centre of villages, so that people would not need to cut down trees from the slopes. Each of the villages was connected by trees, so a contiguous corridor of greenery would give better hope for chimps to survive. Farmlands were reclaimed, drawing fresh water from wells. Microcredit programmes were started, specially targeting women and given them opportunities to create livelihoods for themselves. Scholarships were given to girls, because their education meant smaller family sizes. Family planning education was also imparted with information on HIV Aids. Fair trade prices were obtained for farmers who grew coffee on the slopes, so they earned a better income on their produce.
Why Jane Goodall has hope for humanity? Why doesn’t Jane give way to pessimism?
• Our human brain Humans are ingeniously capable of finding solutions to problems. Jane spoke about Don Merton and his team’s never say die approach in reviving the population of Black Robins in New Zealand. The 27 birds left were taken to an island for the species to regenerate. To their dismay, only 5 survived. Through clever management of breeding and nesting techniques, they revived the population and Black Robins now number about 634.
• Resilience of Nature Examples abound where devasted ecosystems have been regenerated. TACARE is one such project. River Thames in London was once a polluted sewer, but now is cleaner with the fish back. Near extinct species have been brought back from the brink in many cases the world over.
• The energy, enthusiasm and courage of young people empowered to take action Nothing demonstrates this better than the Roots & Shoots organisations started by the Jane Goodall foundation. Imagine a little seed with a little white root, with a life force so great that it can push aside boulders and break open brick walls to form a tree. Similarly, tens of thousands of young people who are part of this movement spread over 111 countries, are taking initiative to solve local problems involving human communities, animals or the environment. Such a force can break through these brick walls of problems inflicted on our earth.
• The indomitable human spirit Carlos Magdalena, is a fine example. The energetic Spanish botanist works tirelessly on reviving near extinct species of plants and trees from Mauritius, in one case using merely 2-3 live cells in near dead seeds. In this context, Jane mentioned the important role horticulturists and Botanical Gardens play in gathering seeds before it’s too late. The Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Kew Gardens is an important project to preserve seeds and biodiversity.
<Photo 2> Jane concluded her talk with the incident that happened in a North American zoo, where Jo-Jo the chimp nearly drowned in the water by the edge of the enclosure. Rick who happened to be visiting the zoo with his family saw this, and did the dangerous but heroic act of jumping in and pulling Jo-Jo out to safety before scurrying back over the railings. When asked why he did it, Rick said, ‘Well, you see, I happened to look into his eyes and it was like looking into the eyes of a man, and the message was ‘‘won’t anybody help me?’
In Jane’s own words which I’m quoting from an interview she had given to CNN, “That’s the message I’ve seen in the eyes of the little orphans tied up in the market place, it’s the look that I’ve seen in the five-foot by five-foot medical lab research prisons, it’s the look I’ve seen from under the frills of the cruelly-trained entertainment chimps, it’s the look I’ve seen in the eyes of chained elephants, dogs thrown in the street, beaten horses. But it’s the look I’ve seen too in the eyes of little children who’ve seen their parents killed in the ethnic violence in Africa. And I’ve seen it in the eyes of those in the refugee camps and in the eyes of street children with no homes and in the eyes of kids caught up in inner-city violence with nowhere to turn.
And if you see that look and you feel it in your heart, you have to jump in and try to help. I think this is my greatest reason for hope.
Wherever I’ve seen problems, I’ve seen a person or a group of passionate and dedicated people who are doing their best to sort that problem out, to restore social justice, to help the environment, to help animals”
During the Q & A, I had the opportunity to let Jane know how much I was inspired by the book that she has co-authored with Mark Bekoff, “The Ten Trusts” . My question to her was whether it was necessary for animals to be used in medical research and education.
Jane replied that the human brain is ingenious enough to find ways to do things, including medical research without the use of animals and hopes for this to happen. Animals feel pain just like humans do. She added that industrial farming also inflicts a lot of cruelty on animals, apart from causing methane emissions which are responsible for global warming. We need to treat animals in an ethical and humane way.
Having received Jane Goodall’s message of inspiration during her visit to Singapore, and throughout her worldwide travels, “We must not despair, but live with hope for the future,” I’d like to say, Thank you, Jane. Thank you!
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