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10.20.2006

Jane Goodall in Beijing

Last Monday I went to see Jane Goodall give an evening talk, part of her brief tour through China promoting Roots and Shoots, an organization she founded several years ago in the hopes of enlisting young people across the world to do ecological work.

It takes stubbornness and an almost pathological optimism to stand in a Beijing auditorium and talk about saving the environment. Fortunately Goodall has abundant reserves of both, and there is something cheering about seeing her on stage, with her stuffed banana-eating chimpanzee, encouraging young Chinese people that it is not too late to turn things around. Goodall is quiet, kindly and warm, like a beloved favorite aunt, and it is impressive to remember that this soft-spoken woman once spent many years doing pioneering fieldwork in the harshest conditions.

The talk attracted a mixture of expats and Chinese students, as well as a fair number of older people of uncertain provenance and a small swarm of photographers. Poster exhibits had been set up in the auditorium lobby, most of them by the Roots and Shoots groups and their offshoots, but these were in Chinese only and so inaccessible to me.

The moment Goodall came out on the stage the photographers popped up to take her picture, hiding her from view. One very serious cameraman stood with his back to her and filmed the audience. Goodall was genial, smiling through the cameras, placing her stuffed chimp gingerly on the lectern in front of her. She was dressed in something fuzzy and black and had a long flowy scarf around her shoulders; all that was missing was a mug of chamomile tea. Her translator was a serious, compact guy in a suit, with a copy of her talk in his hand. They were a team act; Goodall would speak three or four sentences at a time, then the translator would deliver them to the audience in Chinese while the woman behind me repeated them loudly in English for her hard-of-hearing companion.

Goodall started her talk by telling everyone that while she could not greet them in Chinese, she would greet them in chimpanzee, and she then gave a long, crescendoing chimp cry that sounded amazingly like the famous diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. This completely silenced the audience and made the photographers sit down. But the translator, a little bit of a spoilsport, did not give a chimp cry himself.

The first part of Goodall's talk was a recital of her own story - her early dreams of working with animals when she was growing up in England, the near-universal discouragement she received from everyone except her mother, her first meeting with Leakey in Kenya, her faithful mother coming down to live with her in the forest when it was decided she must have a chaperone, and the long frustrations that preceded her first breakthrough observation: seeing a chimpanzee prepare a termite meal by first peeling and shaping a poking stick. This famous event was the first time anyone had seen tool use by an animal, at a time when toolmaking was considered the distinguishing characteristic of homo sapiens. It got Goodall the funding needed to continue her work.

Goodall talked a little bit about the many things she had learned about the social habits of chimpanzees, demonstrating the various behaviors on the translator as she described them. She began with a discussion of head-patting, tapping him softly on the head as she spoke, to the complete bafflement of everyone in the room who did not speak English. The mortified man frowned deeper into his glasses and stared at the paper in his hand, which was now bunching up a little bit. When she finished talking, still patting his head, he dutifully translated her explanation, to mounting laughter. Goodall let him finish and then carried on:

"Now, let's say I'm a female chimpanzee..."

The translator's grip seemed to tighten, though I had thought he could not grip the paper any harder.

"Then I may just go up and..." And here she turned to the translator and planted a big wet kiss on his cheek, amplified by the microphone he was holding up defensively to his lip.

"Sweet monkey Jesus!" I thought to myself. "You're on stage making out with Jane Goodall! Roll with it!" But the translator failed to roll with it at all. He stared down at his sheaf of papers as if he were trying to ignite them with his mind. The audience, of course, was going nuts.

Spurned by this man of ice, Goodall moved to the second part her talk, a litany of the many environmental problems facing the world and especially her beloved African forests. The dynamic there is sad. Demand for wood (driven in large part by China) has led to logging that not only destroys chimpanzee habitat directly, but also creates roads that open previously inaccessible parts of the jungle to poachers. The poachers hitch rides in on logging trucks, set up camp, and then kill every large animal they can find over the course of two or three days. These animals are sold for 'bush meat' back in the rapidly growing African cities; any young collected in the hunt are sold as pets. In essence, the African forests are being mined both for their wood and their wildlife, in a way that guarantees their eventual exhaustion. We're partly to blame for it, since we drive the demand. But, Goodall argues, this also means we exert some power over the situation.

The final part of her talk was devoted to developing this argument, laying out her reasons for not losing hope. She cited two examples of animals in China being saved from the brink of extinction: the Milu deer, which is about to be reintroduced into captivity after a rather extraordinary history where repeated attempts to breed up populations of the animal were thwarted by its being so very very tasty, and the crested ibis, a beautiful bird whose numbers had declined to seven birds in Shaanxi province by 1981, but which has now recovered to the point where about a thousand birds are alive. She also referred to successful desert reclamation in the Loess plateau, which I had not heard about before. Most of my experience with the Loess plateau has involved inhaling it as it floats in giant yellow clouds past Beijing, but Goodall calls it the largest recuperation of a destroyed ecosystem in history.

Environmental organizations pose a dilemma for the Chinese government. On the one hand, pollution in China affects everyone on a day-to-day level, and in some places (like the coal region of Shaanxi) it makes life almost intolerable. Pollution also takes a huge chunk out of Chinese GDP, deters foreign tourism, and annoys the neighbors. Narrowly focused environmental activism (like the national panda fetish) has been good public relations for China, making the country look like it's making serious reforms after a regrettable interval when economic development trumped every other concern.

But there is always a risk that any kind of organized grass-roots activity may cross political redlines, especially since many of the worst environmental problems are a direct result of corruption and misgovernment. Having someone as charismatic and famous as Goodall offers a bit of protection to both sides in the game. Her prestige protects her organization from arbitrary hassles, while her track record of focusing on ecological problems and trying to work within sometimes difficult political constraints reassures the government that the group won't go all Falun Gong on them.

Goodall is used to dealing with a variety of devils - her whole career studying chimpanzees required working with African governments of varying degrees of unsavoriness, and since becoming an environmental crusader she has allowed her image be used in connection with commercial products in ways that purists might find problematic. You get the impression that her tolerance for human imperfection comes from having seen some very dark things, and not just from our own species. After studying chimpanzees for over ten years and coming to see them as peaceful and benevolent animals with a bit of a temper, Goodall witnessed a four-year chimpanzee war of extermination, and discovered a mother-daughter pair who liked to kill and eat babies. To someone who always had higher expectations of chimpanzees than people, the petty hypocrisies of Western consumerism or even Chinese repression must seem like small potatoes in comparison. Her resilience and optimism are remarkable; they reminded me of how many times I have been content to adopt a convenient pessimism in the face of the terrible environmental damage taking place, and made me ashamed of it.

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