Chimp revolutionary's warning: 'In 100 years I don't know what will be left'

Even before Dr Jane Goodall spoke, the packed crowd huddled into the Piazza at South Bank was on its feet giving the environmental activist a round of applause.

The 83-year-old primatologist, who responded with her individual chimpanzee call, told the audience on Sunday evening she kicked off her most famous work with chimpanzees in Africa as a "naive" young woman from London whose love for the continent was born from the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan.

"So there I am at 23, waving to family and friends and setting off on this amazing adventure where the cold, grey water along the English Channel gradually got bluer and the air got warmer and the smells coming in from the coast became really exotic," she said.

Dr Goodall said she arrived in Nairobi to visit a friend and knew she had "really arrived in Africa" when she saw the footprints of a male leopard outside her window.

She stayed on as a secretary for archaeologist Louis Leakey, who fostered field research to try and unravel the mysteries of human evolution, before she was asked to study chimpanzees.

With no scientific background but a love for animals since she "popped out of the womb", Dr Goodall took off with her mother for Gombe, where she spent the better part of six months trying to stop the chimpanzee tribes from running away from her.

That was until she had an encounter with one of the dominant males, nicknamed David Greybeard.

"The first magical moment, this was when he first began to allow me to follow him. Normally when they left I would let them go, because I didn't want to push them," she said.

She thought she had lost him but spotted him further along sitting, looking back.

"There was this palm nut on the ground so I held it out to him on my palm and he turned his face away so I put my hand closer," she said.

"He turned and looked into my eyes, he reached and dropped the nut in one movement and gently held my fingers and gently applied pressure which is how chimps reassure each other.

"(Then) he lay down and slept for about 20 minutes beside me.

"So in that one moment, we communicated in a way that must have pre-dated human words and I knew that he understood my motive.

"He didn't want the nut but he knew my motive was good and it was just the most magical moment."

Dr Goodall described the first time she saw the chimpanzees use and modify objects into tools, a trait previously thought to have originated with man, she said.

"I saw a chimpanzee crouched over a termite mound and I saw a hand reach out and break off grass stems, push them down into the termite mound, pull it slowly out and bite off the termites," she said.

"He was using the grass stem as a tool."

Dr Goodall wrote about her discovery to Mr Leakey, who shipped her off to Cambridge University to get a PhD to help continue her work and document her research.

But when she told her professors and colleagues about her chimps' personalities, they told her her she had done "everything wrong".

"Imagine how I felt when so many of them told me I had done everything wrong, that I shouldn't have given the chimpanzees names, they should have had numbers, that was scientific," she said.

"I couldn't talk about them having personalities, I couldn't talk about them having minds capable of thinking and I absolutely couldn't talk about them having emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, grief and so on because those were unique to us.

"At that time it was thought in science...that there was a sharp line dividing us and the animal kingdom."

Her determination carried her through and when she returned to Gombe, she set up the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 where she continued her studies of chimpanzee tribes, saying they were not too dissimilar to human communities.

"We know there is always one male who makes it to the top...some males get there by brute strength and aggression, others use their brain and form alliances," she said.

"Interestingly, the ones who swagger and bully don't last as long as the clever ones. We sometimes hope that will be true for some of our politicians today."

It was in the mid-1980s Dr Goodall decided to leave her "idyllic" life at Gombe and become an activist, championing for the communities, environments and animals of the world.

She spoke on Sunday of the damage caused by coal mines, the impact of pollution on the Great Barrier Reef and the necessity of wildlife corridors for animals such as koalas.

Dr Goodall urged everyone to do something, to start making small changes in their everyday lives to improve the world for the better.

"Our brains are extraordinary so isn't it bizarre that this most intellectual creature, that has put people on the moon, a robot on the surface of Mars, is destroying our own planet," she said.

"We better do something about it, if we don't change now...then in 100 years I don't know what will be left."

It was hard not to be captivated by the woman who has penned more than 20 books and spends 300 days of the year travelling the world, trying to exact change.

Her major focus these days is on educating children on the importance of conservation, which she does through her Roots and Shoots program that works with schools to develop three projects a year that focus on community, environment and animals.

Dr Goodall will be holding a public lecture in Sydney next week to round off her national tour.

This story Chimp revolutionary's warning: 'In 100 years I don't know what will be left' first appeared on Brisbane Times.