Jane Goodall came to Gombe National Park to study chimpanzees 50 years ago. She became one of the world’s best known primate researchers. In the early 1990s, she became shocked by the ecological destruction around the park and left the jungle to become an activist. Nowadays she’s saving the primates using microcredit.
The 76-year-old chimpanzee expert travels the world to talk about her conservation work. She tells stories about how local people are involved in conserving the area around the Gombe reserve, and about her battle against the never-ending trade in bushmeat.
In the 1960s, Tanzania was flooded with refugees from then Belgian Congo. Ten years later it was clear to everyone how fast deforestation was taking place, says Ms Goodall. High birth rates and new influxes of refugees increased the pressure on the population.
“It wasn't until the early nineties when I flew over the whole area that I realised the deforestation outside the park was total. That the park itself was like a little oasis. It was obvious looking down there were more people living there than the land could support. As the trees went, there was soil erosion, mud slides. The only trees were in the steep ravines where even the desperate farmers couldn't go to cultivate.”
Health and education
Meanwhile the number of chimpanzees decreased proportionately. When Ms Goodall arrived there were an estimated two to three million in West and Central Africa, by 1986 there were only 300,000. It was clear that the chimpanzees did not stand a chance if the living conditions of the people in the area did not improve. The researcher set up the Jane Goodall Institute TaCare (Take Care) Programme, inspired by the Tanzanians themselves.
Conservation was not at the top of their priorities, but enough food, better health and education for their children was. Alongside agricultural projects and programmes concerning health and education, TaCare focuses on women.
“The best example is a woman called Gertruda. She got a small loan and developed tree nurseries around the village. Then she sold seedlings for a very small amount of money, but she was able to pay back het loan.”
The project is very successful. Around 85 percent of the loans are paid back in full. Up to now microfinance has been associated with combating poverty, but the Goodall Institute shows there are other possibilities.
Although microfinance for conservation is nothing new, the project has inspired other organisations. In Uganda, a conservation project in Budongo Forest in Uganda, where 600 chimpanzees live, also started a microcredit project last year.
There are lots tree nurseries now around the Gombe reserve. New legislation means villagers have to reserve ten percent of the land for conservation too, which has led to a green zone around the park and two green corridors to other chimp groups.
“So two years ago I sat looking out behind Gombe over hills that were totally bare; and now thirty-foot trees. It was all green and I was crying because it worked. We don't know if the chimpanzees will use these corridors but it is their one chance for survival into the future because only about a hundred of them and they need to get genetic exchange with other chimpanzee groups for long term viability.”
But the battle is not over for Jane Goodall: the small, grey-haired conservationist has now taken up the cause against the trade in bushmeat.