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Conservationist Jane Goodall Has Hope for Chimpanzees, Humans

Jane Goodall, the primatologist known for her work with chimpanzees, says the creatures remain threatened as their natural habitat shrinks because of human encroachment. The conservationist spoke with VOA's Mike O'Sullivan in Los Angeles, and said she is hopeful that that the problems afflicting the animals and their human neighbors can be surmounted.

Jane Goodall has studied chimpanzees, a kind of African ape, for 44 years, but she spends much of her time on the road spreading her conservation message. She says the animals' numbers are declining and that their condition today is "grim."

"For chimpanzees, it was between one and two million 100 years ago, no more than 150,000 stretched across 21 African nations today, many of them in small isolated groups surrounded by deforestation, cultivated fields, and desertification," she said. "So it's a very grim picture."

The scientist notes that African chimps, gorillas and Asian orangutans face similar problems. Human development is destroying their habitats, and new roads built by loggers provide easy access to the forest for illegal hunters.

Ms. Goodall says the African home of the chimpanzees has been plagued with human and environmental traumas. She watches it all from her base in Tanzania, where she operates a chimpanzee refuge in Gombe National Park.

But, Ms. Goodall sees hope for the animals and their human neighbors because of a program called "TACARE" (Pr: "Take Care"), which is formally known as the Lake Tanganyika Catchment, Reforestation and Education Project. TACARE provides educational help and small loans for women, allowing them to set up sustainable development projects, including tree nurseries and forest-based farms that grow coffee, mushrooms, coconuts, and medicinal plants. TACARE operates in villages in the Kigoma region of Tanzania, and supports similar efforts in the Congo Basin.

"I think the hope in Africa springs from many different sources," she said. "First of all, nature is amazingly resilient, and even slopes that have been denuded of trees, providing the tree stumps that look dead are left alone and not continually hacked at for firewood, then those stumps can regenerate into 20-30-foot-high [six to nine-meter] trees in just five years. So if one can work with the local people and help them to develop environmentally sustainable projects, which is our TACARE program, then indeed there's hope because farmers can be relocated into areas that have been destroyed. We can help them to regenerate the soil, and they can then leave places which will enable the Gombe chimpanzees to travel through leafy corridors to interact with other remnant groups."

Ms. Goodall says chimpanzees are social creatures with remarkable similarities to humans. That realization, she says, should teach us humility. She notes that humans are unique, however, in possessing sophisticated language skills, and says we have the ability to reverse environmental problems.

In 1977, the scientist founded the Jane Goodall Institute to promote her work. In 1991, she founded another organization called Roots and Shoots to carry the conservation message to young people. She says the name is symbolic.

"Roots make a firm foundation," she said. "Shoots seem tiny but to reach the sun can break through a brick wall. And if we see the brick wall is all the problems we're inflicted on the planet, environmental and social, and all today's horrors of terrorism, then it's a message of hope. Hundreds and thousands of young people around the world can break through and make the world a better place. So this program, which began in Tanzania, has spread to many parts of Africa."

The Roots and Shoots program operates in 87 countries today, with more than 7,000 chapters. The activist says the program offers a hands-on experience for youngsters to work with animals and help preserve the environment. Now, it also includes a peace initiative to help the youngsters understand those of other countries, cultures and religions.

Ms. Goodall tells her supporters that despite the problems that afflict both animals and humans, people should not lose hope but should get involved, so they can make a difference.