This goes without saying, but Jane Goodall is a powerful woman. Her accomplishments and status as the most famous conservationist on the planet aside, there is a force about her that can’t be easily quantified. She speaks in measured tones, pausing each time a question is asked. When the answers come they have a certain glacial quality — carrying an unseen mass that represents decades of research and an ever-deepening well of passion.
Speaking with her, it immediately becomes clear: Her wisdom is hard-earned, but her approach is neither rigid or atrophied. Beneath it all, there’s still the twinkle of mischief in Goodall’s eyes — an important tool for a woman who spent her life fighting not just for primates, but also against the patriarchal, archaic thinking of colonialism.
Last year’s release of Jane — a National Geographic documentary loaded with archival footage — reveals a woman who stepped into a male-dominated field, changed the game, and, eventually, the world. In the process, she became the mother of a new era of conservation, in which scientists learned to take a more compassionate approach to the natural world. The documentary is richly textured (featuring a stunning orchestral score by Philip Glass) and offers insight into one of the most important and perpetually relevant natural scientists to have ever lived.
This week, we spoke to Goodall over the phone as she finished the press tour for Jane. Throughout the conversation, she laid out a roadmap for anyone who wants to leave the planet better than they found it.
Obviously, the world is changing incredibly rapidly. It’s changed greatly across your career. What are the challenges that you see to animal conservation now, that maybe you didn’t see or people weren’t recognizing 20 years ago, or even as few as 10 years ago?
Well of course, from where I stand in Africa, the deforestation and the poaching, the illegal wildlife trade, has hugely accelerated. It’s very alarming. The corruption has led to the acceleration of wildlife trafficking and the trafficking of animal parts like tusks and rhino horn. On the positive side, there is a greater awareness. There’s more understanding that animals, like us, have feelings and can feel pain and fear and distress as well as happiness. So, that’s lead to, I think a rapidly growing number of people who want to try living on a plant-based diet to avoid that cruelty.
There’s change for the better and change for the worse.