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Putting Down Roots

Diana Khoo
Diana Khoo4/9/2020 6:0 AM GMT+08  • 12 min read
Putting Down Roots
Primatologist, anthropologist and animal rights advocate Dr Jane Goodall is best known for her research on chimpanzees, but her work has since evolved to include activism and education
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Primatologist, anthropologist and animal rights advocate Dr Jane Goodall is best known for her research on chimpanzees, but her work has since evolved to include activism and education — such as her youth-led action programme, Roots & Shoots, whose Malaysian chapter was established in 2015. Options speaks exclusively to the living legend during her third and most recent visit to the country

SINGAPORE (Apr 9): Those interested in science and nature would undoubtedly have heard of how a young English girl named Jane Goodall was recruited by anthropologist Louis Leakey and went on to do groundbreaking work herself in behavioural primatology in the 1960s in Gombe, a small forest reserve on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Lately, however, it is her youth-led action programme, aptly named Roots & Shoots (R&S), that has placed Goodall, now 86, in the spotlight again as it gains international traction.


Established in 1991 under the umbrella of the Jane Goodall Institute, R&S started with a group of 12 Tanzanian students who had gathered on a porch to brainstorm on how to solve problems in their local community. Now a global movement, the programme boasts more than 10,000 active groups in 60 — and counting — countries. “They were high school students from eight different schools and they all had various concerns about things that were going wrong,” says Goodall of the original R&S-ers. “Some of them were really upset about illegal dynamite fishing; some were worried about the poaching of animals in the national parks; some were worried about the treatment of stray dogs, and others were concerned about the street children with no homes. So, I sent them off to get their friends who were interested in similar social and environmental issues — and that was when R&S was born.”

On the evocative name, Goodall explains: “Imagine one of these beautiful, big trees. It was a little seed but it begins to grow. It seems very small and insignificant when little roots appear and a little tiny shoot. But the magic in the seed, the life force… it is so strong that the little roots, to reach the water, can push aside rocks, creeping through them [at first] and pushing them aside. For the little shoot to reach the sunlight, it can work through cracks in brick walls and eventually knock them down.”

As she talks about nature, Goodall’s eyes sparkle and she speaks with increased vigour, almost as if she herself is filled with magic seeds and the planet’s life force. “We see bricks and rocks and all the terrible things we humans have done to the planet. So, it is hoped that hundreds and thousands of young people around the world can [likewise] break through and make things better. And because everything is interconnected, we decided that each group will choose a minimum of three projects — one to help people, one to help animals and one to help the environment, or all three in one. There are now so many countries dangling from its [R&S] branches and it’s all very exciting.”

The Malaysian chapter of R&S was established in 2015 with the support of the Berjaya Cares Foundation, and Goodall herself flew into Kuala Lumpur recently for the presentation ceremony of the inaugural Roots & Shoots Malaysia Award (Rasma). “It is a service-based award that celebrates our youth volunteers and the amazing work of our conservation partners,” explains T P Lim, president of R&S Malaysia. “This is in line with Jane’s vision and her philosophy to encourage youth to implement practical positive change for people, animals and the environment — and to celebrate their efforts. As we have been working more closely with a variety of conservation partners, we are deeply affected by the challenges they face, particularly the loss of our last Sumatran rhino, the rampant illegal wildlife pet trade, the poaching of our tigers and, of course, the effects of deforestation and climate change that have wreaked havoc on communities across our country. [As such,] we hope Rasma will encourage more awareness, especially among our youth.”

Rasma was launched last year on Goodall’s birth date — April 3 — with support from Yayasan Hasanah, Khazanah’s independent grant-making foundation, as community partner. The inaugural programme attracted 36 participants aged 16 to 25, who contributed more than 3,200 hours of volunteer time in a three-month period. It had 15 partner organisations, including the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (Sabah), The Habitat Foundation (Penang), Royal Belum State Park (Perak) and the Free Tree Society (Kuala Lumpur).

"We definitely felt it was a success,” Lim says. “We have our partners, funders and volunteers to thank for making a positive impact, although they were just the first steps in what is a long journey ahead. We hope to be able to recruit more youth volunteers this year and expand our list of partners. We have many wonderful organisations in Malaysia doing tremendous work and research, and it is an honour to work with them.” For 2020, the list of partners has expanded to a total of 20 at press time and spans Peninsular Malaysia as well as Sabah and Sarawak, making it easier than ever for youths all over the country to volunteer.


It is impossible these days to discuss youth and the environment without mentioning Greta Thunberg. On the 17-year-old’s emergence as an éminence grise on climate change, however, Goodall expresses concern. “Greta, she comes up all over the place. She’s certainly raised awareness, no question, but young people marching…!” she exclaims, referring to the student-led climate crisis protests of 2019. “How many of those young people are marching because they’d love a day off school? I know I would have. Hopefully, some of that passion rubs off. And when you point at politicians and say, ‘How dare you do this and that’, it antagonises people. And that’s where R&S’ approach is very different. It’s about meeting somebody, spending time with them and trying to reach their heart. [Honestly], very few people will respond to, ‘How dare you destroy my future’. They [governments] have got to want to change from inside. I really feel very strongly about that. Yes, one can pay lip service and say, ‘Yes, I agree with you completely and we need to change’. But, if it doesn’t come from the heart, it won’t last.”

Switching topics, Goodall is quick to answer when asked who she thinks highly of. “I’ve always looked up to Muhammad Yunus [of Grameen Bank],” she says brightly. “He took me to Bangladesh to meet some of the women [who have benefited from micro-financing]. Having said that, a lot of our youth leaders are doing amazing things. I know of a Canadian who was born without arms and legs and he still goes around Europe on a skateboard and is just so full of life. These people are so inspirational and showcase the indomitable human spirit.”

For Lim, that Goodall is his idol is patently obvious. “I was moderator of Jane’s dialogue with a meditation teacher in Taiwan in 2009,” he says. “I was blown over by her message of youth empowerment and immediately invited her to come to Malaysia. I showed up at all her subsequent talks in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan spanning a six-year period and kept reminding her to come to my country, as I felt Malaysians would benefit a lot from hearing her speak. It would also go a long way in encouraging our own eco-heroes to carry on their work.”

His description of their first meeting is heartwarming and funny. “When we first met, I could hardly contain my excitement. I said to her, ‘Jane, I may look calm, but I am actually screaming inside’. She looked at me, completely deadpan, and replied: ‘I often have that effect on people.’ She turned out to be funny, playful and nothing short of inspiring. I have been able to witness first-hand her immense dedication to environmental and community issues, her deep compassion for all living beings and her abundance of hope that we can still make a difference to better our planet for the next generation. I come away from our meetings even more inspired and hopeful for our youth and the amazing change they can bring.”


Asked what she would tell someone who still refuses to believe in climate change, quick as a whip, the octogenarian replies: “You [mean] how do I tell Mr Trump? I don’t want to try and explain to him because he wouldn’t listen. But, normally, I would simply tell people what I have encountered going around the world, the things I’ve seen. How people tell me the weather patterns have changed; how the storms are getting worse and more frequent, and droughts and flooding too. And how the sea levels are rising, the glaciers are vanishing and the ice caps are melting. The climate crisis is very, very real, and if they don’t want to believe in it, then I am going to send them out onto the Antarctic ice, leave them there and very soon they will be in the water!”

As we sit, chatting and laughing around Lim’s coffee table, we spot Mr H — Goodall’s equally famous stuffed toy monkey and mascot, which has been with her for decades and described as her most treasured possession. “Everyone thinks that it was Jubilee, a chimpanzee toy that was given to me at 18 months of age, that sowed the seed [for what I do]. But that was pure coincidence. Likewise, everyone thinks chimps are my favourite animal, but they are not. It’s actually the dog. Chimps are too much like humans; there are lovely ones but also very nasty ones.” She laughs.

On the topic of man’s best friend, Goodall lets out a little sigh and laments how her punishing travel schedule has ruled out the possibility of a four-legged friend to call her own. “But when I go home to England, to my sister in Bournemouth, there’s always at least one dog there. So, I try to get dog fixes every day when I’m with her.” She smiles. “[Fighting] poaching, habitat loss, animals’ plights not heard by policymakers — that’s what I spend my life doing, spending 300 days a year on the road. I go all over the world,” she adds firmly. “We are in every region now, more or less, and growing all the time. And it’s not just R&S groups. We have the Jane Goodall Institute — 34 of them, maybe soon 35 — and R&S is a major programme of all the JGIs, along with the protection of forests.”

Asked about the year’s International Women’s Day, with the theme “Each for Equal”, which has just passed, Goodall shares that she too faced many challenges simply on account of gender. “Well, when I wanted to start [researching primates], there was nobody doing it at all — man or woman! In fact, I never even wanted to be a scientist but just a naturalist, watching animals and writing about them. And even though I got criticised in the early days, it didn’t really matter. All I wanted for myself and my mentor Louis Leakey was to find out all I could about chimpanzees. So, when I was told that a lot of scientists didn’t believe anything I said because I was a girl and that I hadn’t been to college… well…” she says, adding with trademark Goodall bluntness, “stuff them!”


Still so sprightly that people several decades younger would find it hard to keep up with her, Goodall stresses: “I don’t think about ageing. I don’t have a special diet and I don’t have time for exercise. Well, I guess I get a lot of exercise at airports, as it seems my gate is always absolutely the farthest away from where I check in. I just get on and do what I have to do and don’t think too much about it. That’s the way I cope and will go on doing so for as long as my body agrees to it.”

Acknowledging her blessings, she adds: “I was given many gifts, but two that are really important for what I am doing are, first, a very good constitution. A lot of people, they get sick and it’s nothing to do with their lifestyle, really. It’s just their genes and I was given good, strong ones. Second, I was given [the] gift of communication. Be it with individuals, communicating at lectures or communicating through writing — I’ve always loved writing. So, these gifts I was given, I must use because I care passionately about the environment and the future of our children. I make mistakes — everybody makes mistakes — but I learn from them. When I look back over my life, certainly the professional part of it, I don’t think I would do anything different because it equipped me — as I went through my journey — to do what I am doing now.” As we say our goodbyes, to Mr H included, Goodall muses on the inevitable question of how one hangs on to hope in an age that seems so bleak.

“How do people stay positive and hopeful in the face of this onslaught on the natural earth? It’s difficult, it’s really difficult,” she admits. “But it is important to try and give young people some hope that if they all take action and don’t give up, that they work on changing their parents and grandparents, and involve their friends and families, then we can hope our combined efforts will result in protection of some of these. I mean, [do not forget] we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction. So, somehow we have to help people understand that we need the environment for ourselves. We need the ecosystem; we are part of it. And as we [continue to] destroy, we are destroying the future for our own children. So, we have got to get that message across, that we actually need the natural world, and to try and help people understand what we face if we continue the destruction.”

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