Dr Jane Goodall, our May cover star, in conversation with Livia Firth Advertisement

#Exclusive: Dr Jane Goodall, our May cover star, in conversation with Livia Firth

A conversation and photoshoot over Zoom

By Livia Firth  May 4th, 2020

Eco-Age co-founder and creative director Livia Firth talks to the ever-inspiring Dr Jane Goodall, DBE on the resilience of nature and hope in the indomitable human spirit and how this pandemic is an opportunity to reset everything.


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I don’t think Dr Jane Goodall DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace needs any introduction, as her reputation precedes her. I met her few times in the last few years, always during the Roots & Shoots Awards ceremony in London, surrounded by children and hugging her favourite (and famous) soft chimp toy. Considering her career and achievements, one might expect a certain aloofness—which would be more than justified. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.


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Not only is the twinkle in her eye and mischievous smile stronger than ever, but what drives her to this day is her desire for contact with people and conversations in order to promote her own message on behalf nature and animals. Before we started this interview, I flippantly commented on the fact that she must have been happy not to be travelling for a while as Covid-19 has put all of us on hold in one place. Well… I should have known better as, even from our Zoom screen, she looked as if I was living on Mars: “I can’t wait to go back on the road! I miss travelling and people so much!” There you go.

Excerpts from our conversation.

Livia Firth: Hi Jane! So lovely to see you, you look so well!

Jane Goodall: Thank you!

LF: I wanted to ask you—what is happening on the project on the ground now in Africa because of Covid-19?

JG: Chimp Eden (in South Africa) and Tchimpounga (in the Republic of Congo) are all right because you can keep the people isolated with the chimps. Anybody who comes in has to be tested, so it’s not too threatening. But Gombe (in Tanzania) is completely different. It doesn’t have a fence and there are thousands and thousands of people in poor villages living around. The number of people who can go into the field are reduced, they go out once or twice a week just to check on where the chimps are. But it’s creeping closer to (the town of) Kigoma, so we’ve got a big campaign to educate the villagers and deliver masks and conduct tests. I mean, we are terrified the chimps can catch it too. It’s really difficult—you just have to keep fingers crossed.


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LF: I just saw that a new documentary has come out called Jane Goodall: The Hope. I immediately thought how timely it was titled! You also spoke so beautifully about ‘hope’ in your Easter message on Instagram, about resurrection, hope, and resilience. It’s nice to talk to someone who saw WWII and then 9/11 when you were in New York—you witnessed and saw the transformation and what happened after. So do you feel hopeful?

JG: I still have hope in the resilience of nature, I have hope in the youth, and I have hope in the indomitable human spirit that says, “I am not going to give up. I will never give up”. I’m not hopeful that some of the politicians or world leaders are going to change; instead it will need the community to rise right now, and I think the ground now is really ripe for that. This lockdown has made us rediscover a sort of interconnection that we have, this sense of community. It almost reminded us, that we are citizens.


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LF:  In her book On Fire Naomi Klein talks about a Marshall Plan for recovery, a new deal for a green economy. Maybe this is what will happen because if governments and businesses want to survive these viruses, they have to drastically change. What would be your Marshall Plan for nature?

JG: I am in the middle of writing an essay for a book about greening urban areas, planting trees, allowing space, putting things on the roof, green walls, and urban gardens. We could even have organic vegetables grow in all the school gardens, so that the butterflies and insects can pollinate and flowers can come back. You know, we could do it. It works!

Dr Jane Goodall
Photograph: © The Jane Goodall Institute/ By Jane Goodall

As well as planting trees now and protecting forests, I think we have to work with youth, we have to work with politicians, we have to work with corporations, we have to work with teachers and parents. We have to try and hit it from all sides. Somebody famous once said ‘think globally, act locally,’ but I can’t remember who it was. But it was wrong. We have to act locally before we dare think globally, because you sit here and think about all the global problems, you can’t help but be depressed. You can’t. But if you say “Well I can do something about this. I can get my whole school or maybe my neighbourhood recycling,” you would do it and that’s great. That’s the mentality behind Roots & Shoots, which has 65 active countries now.

LF: It is so big! And it’s present in India as well?

JG: It’s growing fast in India! Shweta Khare Naik [the country coordinator in India] is amazing and we have linked her up with other little groups who are starting. And I was going to India this year, to visit some of the schools and meet the volunteers who have been working away to give some inspiration and to congratulate them on what they are doing, but now I just have to try and do it virtually. I’m really glad I got to China just before the lockdown, because Roots & Shoots is big there too. We currently have a programme there with university students who go around big companies and they make an assessment of their environmental impact; things like turning their lights and laptops and use of paper. Three months later they go back, and as a result of making this inference, the companies have changed!

Dr Jane Goodall
Photogrpah: © The Jane Goodall Institute/ By Hugo van Lawick

LF: That’s fantastic! I’m sure businesses all over the world would love to have children going to their offices to tell them how to be responsible. I mean, it should start from the children. This is what I love about Greta Thunberg’s movement. It’s about having a young person mobilising millions of youth around the world to protest, but I feel that protests should now move into solutions. So, it should not only be a protest, it should be about what we are going to do. If you want to affect change you have to be positive, constructive and an optimist as well. But sometimes it’s difficult. In my work as an activist, sometimes I get really frustrated and angry and I lose patience with all the businesses that pretend they want change and they don’t…

JG: Well, you have to reduce it to its simplicity. And also not try and do everything with the same methods, because that doesn’t work. I remember when I began this long effort to end medical research on chimpanzees, I managed to get into a lab and then organised a meeting with some of the people in the lab. A lot of animal rights people never spoke to me again. They said “How can you sit down with those evil people? How can you accept a cup of coffee from them?” And I said, “If you don’t sit to talk to them, how can you expect any change?”


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So, I didn’t confront them, I merely talked about the  Gombe chimp, I showed them film footage, talked about lying in the evening sun in a nice leafy nest. And that got in them. They didn’t admit it at the time. But, as you know, all the American chimps are now spared [from medical research].

LF: You are absolutely right.  Do you believe that now with this pandemic, we have an opportunity to reset everything?

JG: We do have that opportunity and hopefully so many individuals will reset themselves and that will kind of somehow shoot out and eventually enwrap the guys at the top.

LF: Hopefully! If we all connect and if we all hold hands it will be a reality as well.

JG: We can’t hold hands right now!

LF: Virtual holding hands! It was so lovely to see you Jane and hopefully we can hug each other soon in person.

Featured photograph (L-R): © The Jane Goodall Institute / By Shawn Sweeney; Dr Jane Goodall / Instagram; Daniel Bayer