For more than 40 years, I have studied some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Much of that time I lived among the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, East Africa, observing them for hours, filling notebooks with accounts of their behavior. More recently, alarmed by the harm we have inflicted on the natural world, I have turned my energies to the protection of wildlife and the environment.
I travel all over the globe in my efforts for conservation, and people often ask me: Having seen what we have done to this world and to the living things that share it, how can you keep doing the work you do? It was a question I found myself thinking about when I returned to Gombe on July 14 last year, 40 years to the day after I arrived with my mother, Vanne, to begin my research. I was there to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the longest study of any group of animals anywhere. My mother had died just a few months before at age 94, so the memories that flooded into my mind were bittersweet--thoughts of days and people long gone.
From the earliest times, my mother nurtured my passion for animals. When the authorities in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) refused to allow a young English girl to venture alone into the forests of Gombe to observe chimpanzees, it was Vanne who volunteered to accompany me. On that anniversary day at Gombe last year, I climbed to the Peak, the outcropping of rock above Lake Tanganyika from where, armed with binoculars, I had made many of my early observations of chimpanzees. I have been privileged to know some amazing chimp characters over the years.... Olly, Mike, Mr. McGregor, each with his or her unique personality. I thought of the grand old matriarch, Flo, and her daughter Fifi, a tiny infant in 1960 and the one individual from those days still alive now.
Sitting up there, in that place of memories, I reflected on the plight of chimpanzees and other wild animals in Africa today. In 1960 there were forests fringing the 300-mile shoreline of Lake Tanganyika and extending for miles. Now cultivated fields surround the mere 30 square miles of Gombe National Park. With the tree cover gone, every rainy season sees more of the precious topsoil washed away into the lake. Where there were once lush forests, many places today are desert-like. Not only have the animals gone--the humans are suffering. And this scenario is repeated again and again in the war-torn countries of Africa.
I understand why many of my fellow scientists believe we are spiraling toward global disaster. Still, I have reason for hope. And I collect and always keep with me on my travels symbols that express that hope.
Science is inventing alternatives to fossil fuels; laws have been enacted to control dangerous emissions; timber companies are practicing responsible logging, and so on. As a reminder of the ingenuity of the human brain, I carry with me a part of an eco-brick made from industrial waste. It is coated so that it will last 300 years or so, yet it is cheaper than an everyday building brick. These eco-bricks can be used to build hospitals and schools in the developing world--and solve their waste-disposal problems at the same time.
My second reason for hope is nature's amazing resilience. Polluted water can be cleaned; man-made deserts can bloom again. I carry a leaf from a tree that grows in Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb was dropped at the end of World War II. Scientists predicted that nothing would grow in the scorched, devastated area for at least 30 years--yet the plants came back quite quickly. One slender sapling did not die. Now it is a huge tree and every year puts out new leaves; it is one of these I always keep with me.
Animals on the verge of extinction can be rescued. I have in my collection a feather from a California condor--a species reduced to only 14 individuals a few years ago. All were captured for breeding, and now there are 40 condors flying free in four different release sites. I also have a feather from another species making a comeback against the odds, the peregrine falcon.