Dr Jane Goodall interviewed by Womankind's editorial director Zan Boag. Photo by Michael Neugebauer.

Zan Boag: Your life’s work has revolved around the understanding and protection of great apes, “with the aim of inspiring individual action to help animals and other people, and to protect the world we all share”. What drew you to focus your research on this area?

Jane Goodall: As a child I determined I would go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them. When I eventually got there, aged 23, I was fortunate to get a job with Dr Louis S.B. Leakey, as his secretary – I had not been to college. It was he who offered me the opportunity to go and try to find out about the behaviour of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. At that time they had not been studied in the wild.

It was in 1986, after I had established a research station at Gombe, that I attended a conference that brought together those researchers studying chimpanzees in Africa – only four study sites at that time – and some who were studying captive chimpanzees in non-invasive situations. It was the session on conservation that opened my eyes as to what was going on in Africa. Each scientist presented pictures of deforestation, the beginning of the bushmeat trade – the commercial hunting of wild animals – chimpanzees losing hands and feet from poachers’ snares, and mothers shot to steal infants for sale as pets, for entertainment, and for medical research. It was shocking. And there was a session on conditions in some captive situations, particularly in medical research labs, that was equally shocking.

I went to the conference as a scientist – I had a PhD by then – I left as an activist.I travelled to Africa to find out more about what was going on. I learned more about the plight of the chimpanzees, but I also learned about the poverty, hunger, disease and conflicts that plagued the African people living in and around chimpanzee habitats; and realised I needed to share this information with people in the developed world.

In 1991 I flew over Gombe National Park in a small plane. I knew there was deforestation outside the park, but I was not prepared to see an oasis of forest – that was Gombe – surrounded by completely bare hills where it had been all forest before. More people living there than the degraded land could support, too poor to buy food elsewhere, struggling to survive.

That is when I realised we could not even try to save the chimpanzees unless we tried to improve the lives of these people. That is when we started our TACARE program in the 12 villages surrounding the park. A holistic community conservation effort. That has worked.

Nature writers from Thoreau to Rachel Carson have sought to bring our attention to the wonders of the natural world and to highlight the problems we face. Which writers have shaped your views?

[Rachel Carson’s] Silent Spring made a huge impact on me. But most of my views were shaped by nature, finding, as Shakespeare says, “books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything”.

Many people seem to view nature as something to be controlled, managed, and used for profit – that they are outside of nature, masters of it if you like. It’s obvious that there are problems with such a view – what do you see as the biggest risks we face by continuing to operate in this manner?

It is all part of the materialistic and unsustainable lifestyle. We are divorced from nature in a disastrous way, seeming not to realise that if we continue living like this, treating the natural world as a commodity even as our human populations increase, we shall end up destroying ourselves. Moreover, we need to connect to nature for our spiritual health. This is particularly true for children.

David Attenborough says that contact with nature is critical to the personal development of our children. It’s clear that you agree – one need only look to your Roots & Shoots program. What is the aim of the program and what do you hope to achieve?

Roots & Shoots began in 1991 with 12 high school students in Tanzania: it is now in almost 100 countries, with members in preschool through university. Its main message is that every individual makes a difference – every day. And we have a choice as to what kind of difference we will make. Each group chooses three projects to make the world a better place: one for the human community, one for animals – including domestic ones – and one for the environment. The kind of projects will depend on the age of the students, their environment, and their cultural background.

There is an overall theme of learning to respect others and thus breaking down barriers between nations, religions, cultures, old and young, rich and poor, and between Mother Nature and us. There are something like 150,000 groups around the world. The collective impact is huge. And because we encourage them to take action and listen to their voices, they are empowered. And they influence their parents and grandparents as well as their friends.

The main message is: “Every single one of us matters and makes an impact – every single day. And we have a choice what sort of impact we will make”. There is an oft-heard saying “Think globally; act locally”. But thinking globally, thinking about the harm we have inflicted on the environment, the poverty, greed, violence and so on, often leads to a feeling of helplessness – “What can I do that could make a difference?” And so we do nothing. But the groups see that their actions are making a difference. And, knowing hundreds of other young people are also creating change in this way – acting locally – then they dare to think globally.

What do you regard as the most important environmental issue we currently face?

Human population growth. The other disastrous wounds we are inflicting on the planet – deforestation, acidification of the oceans, pollution of land, air and water, loss of biodiversity and extinction of species, agribusiness, genetic modification of our foods, and all the rest – all of this is compounded by the sheer numbers of the human species.

What is the major stumbling block to moving from a destructive relationship with nature to a harmonious relationship, one in which we are stewards of “Spaceship Earth”, as Neil Postman refers to it?

Firstly, most people seem not to realise that we are destroying the planet for future generations. True, more and more people are becoming aware – but they feel helpless. In the face of such huge global problems, what can one person do? It is so important for us to realise that if each of us tries to leave as light an ecological footprint as possible, the cumulative effect will lead to huge change.

You say that “it’s up to us to decide what kind of difference we’re going to make”. What steps can the everyday person take to start making a difference?

Think about the consequences of the choices you make each day. What do you buy? Where did it come from? How was it made? Could you buy a product made locally, avoiding polluting miles transported? Did it involve animal suffering – hunting, factory farms and so on? Human suffering – as in child slave labour or sweatshops? Finally: do you need it?

What are our biggest challenges over the coming years and what we should be doing about these challenges?

Three interrelated challenges must all be tackled. Firstly there is poverty. If you are desperately poor in a rural area, you will cut down the last trees in a desperate effort to grow food, or for charcoal to make some money to buy food. If in a city you will buy the cheapest food no matter how it is made. Secondly, there is the unsustainable lifestyle of the consumer society. Thirdly, human population growth.

My hope lies in our youth. More and more young people understand and are taking action to make this a better world. And social media, which allows us to encourage hundreds of thousands of people, all over the world, to join in support of particular issues.

Jane Goodall , PhD, DBE began her landmark study of chimpanzee behaviour in what is now Tanzania. In 1977 Dr Goodall established the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), which continues the Gombe research and is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats. The Institute is widely recognised for innovative, community-centred conservation and development programs in Africa, and Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, the global environmental and humanitarian youth program. Dr Goodall’s honours include the French Legion of Honour, the Medal of Tanzania, and Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize. In 2002, Dr Goodall was appointed to serve as a United Nations Messenger of Peace and in 2003, she was named a Dame of the British Empire.